“How did you do it?” That’s the question people always ask Esther Wojcicki, the mom of three exceptional women – Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a professor at UC San Francisco, and Anne is the CEO of 23andMe. Read our conversation below about her new book How to Raise Successful People and learn her TRICK for parenting and building positive relationships with everyone in our lives.
Katie Couric: People are always asking you for parenting advice, so you finally decided to write it all down for this book. What did you learn about yourself during the process?
Esther Wojcicki: I learned a lot about myself and realize that many of the things I did were on automatic pilot. I realized that I was lucky that my gut reactions were good for the most part. In fact, I made mistakes just like everyone else. I am not perfect and no parent is perfect. That is one of the reasons I stress in the book that your parenting decisions have to be on the conscious level or you will, without thinking, do things that you later may regret. If you keep in mind the TRICK acronym [Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness], it helps. I actually created it not only for my book, but for myself….it just encapsulates the way I think about relationships in general, but especially about family relationships. When you write about yourself or keep a journal, it helps you understand yourself more than you ever expect. And looking back over your writing, it shows how your thinking progresses. It is a very easy, fun way to see how you are changing.
We’re both the parents of girls. Do you believe there’s any difference in raising girls rather than boys? What advice would you give specifically to the mothers of young daughters?
These are generalities so take them with a grain of salt. But over all girls are less physically active than boys. While my daughters did not fall into that category of less physically active, most little girls do. That is a plus and minus—-on the plus side it is easier for parents to control them and, on the minus side, they’re not as big risk takers as boys (that is, if you want to encourage risk taking, and that is a good idea). To mothers of young daughters, I would encourage sports, biking–large muscle activity–and would encourage toys that teach thinking–legos, blocks, Rubik’s cube, puzzles, arts and crafts, apps that encourage thinking. Minecraft is actually a good game for kids. I would not encourage Barbie dolls, but if you want to buy a doll, buy one that looks like a baby not like Barbie. I would encourage trust….giving the girls an opportunity to make decisions …what to eat for dinner, what to buy for dessert that night. Why? Because it builds self confidence and that is what you want. Kids who feel confident. I would encourage all parts of the TRICK model…
We’re living in the age of helicopter parents and snowplow parenting and tiger moms. Why do you think parenting has become so anxiety-ridden?
Parents see the world as competitive and dangerous. That is the number one reason they are helicopter parents. They think that if they don’t help out, their child will fall off the narrow path to success. They see dangers everywhere–the kid next door is doing better at potty training, or the girl down the street already knows her alphabet. They are constantly comparing. It makes them nervous wrecks and impacts their kids–every week day there is a planned lesson so they can get ahead. Ahead of what? Why is there a race to grow up? They became so anxiety ridden because of the internet and social media–how easy it is to see what other people and other kids are doing and then they compare their kid. They think everyone is better than they are and they worry about their kids not being able to compete. They need to relax and realize that every child develops on his/her own schedule and that is fine.
When you look at something like the college admissions scandal and the lengths that these parents went to to try to guarantee a successful future for their kids, what’s your reaction?
The college admissions scandal is the end result of helicopter parenting, the end result of parents who are frantic that their kids won’t succeed, parents who take credit and excessive pride in where their kids go to school. They forget that these are children who are entitled to choose their life’s path themselves. Trust, respect and independence are out the window for these parents, but they think that’s what they are doing. For many of these parents, where your child goes to school is a badge of prestige, almost like wearing a Gucci shirt. Parents need to remember that all kids are special, all kids have a right to be who they want to be, all kids have a right to respect and independence, and your kid is not your clone nor your pet. It is not a pet show.
I was struck by this line in your book: “We all tend to parent the way we were parented, but when I became a mother, the one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of my parents.” Tell us about your experience growing up. How do you think it shaped your own parental instincts?
I had a very difficult experience growing up. I had a loving, wonderful mother, but a demanding, dictatorial father who controlled the whole family. He was a product of his time and his own difficult financial circumstances so I have forgiven him. A Russian immigrant with few skills other than art, he couldn’t find lucrative jobs. We were always needy. He was always angry and the child rearing philosophy back then was spare the rod spoil the child. Also, as a girl in an orthodox Jewish family, I had no choice but to be a mother. There was no other path. When I rebelled, he abandoned me financially. If I wanted to go to college, it was up to me. I could easily have just gotten married at 18. It was tough for me, but I was determined to succeed, and thanks to UC Berkeley, I got a scholarship. It did not pay for housing expenses or extras and so I had to work.
What were the moments when you struggled the most as a mom and doubted yourself? How did you get past them?
The hardest time for me as a mom was when I had three kids 5 and under and my husband was gone all the time at work, at CERN (Center for European Nuclear Research) in Geneva. He is a physicist and they run experiments that run 24/7, so sometimes he would be gone late at night. We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment on the 3rd floor of a building with no elevator. In addition, my kids had to learn a new language–French. It was stressful. I took one day at a time and said to myself, “this is just temporary…it won’t last forever” and I was right. They eventually learned French, I figured out how to work the washer in the basement (I turned all our clothes purple before I figured it out). I enlisted my kids to go get the baguette every morning (they become like rocks ove night…so you need to buy them daily). I had to be creative to solve the problems. The key was I believed I could do it….and I did
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you can share with young parents today?
1. Believe in yourself, trust yourself. If you treat your child the way you wish you had been treated as a child, you will be doing the right thing. Start with TRICK early on.
2. Deal with the electronic devices sensibly. If you ban it, it will become like forbidden fruit. Collaborate about it. Do not give children under 2 an electronic device of any kind. Over 2, use only effective apps (see Common Sense Media) and only for one hour per day max. Over 5, suggest what your children should do and collaborate with them. No playing games all day….don’t let them start the habit and then say you will change it next year. Habits start early, last for a lifetime.