Jewish ‘Godmother of Silicon Valley’ offers advice for raising successful people
Author interview'Kids need passion and grit to pursue whatever they want'

Jewish ‘Godmother of Silicon Valley’ offers advice for raising successful people

In her new bestseller, journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki, mother of three superstar daughters — including two of the top CEOs in tech — says independence must be taught early on

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Esther Wojcicki (Jo Sittenfeld)
Esther Wojcicki (Jo Sittenfeld)

Once when Esther Wojcicki‘s journalism students were working on the computers in the library at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, California, they broke out a bag of gummy bears and started sharing them around.

The librarian kicked the teens out, chiding them for breaking the rules. Wojcicki was ejected, as well: She was the one who snuck in the candy in the first place.

Wojcicki is a maverick who doesn’t do things by the book: Former student and actor James Franco routinely sings her praises. As such it’s worth taking note of her new guide to parenting and teaching for the 21st century.

After raising three daughters (two Silicon Valley CEOs and a University of California San Francisco associate professor of pediatrics and epidemiologist) and teaching two generations of students, she believes she has the formula for preparing today’s youth to confront and fix the world’s daunting challenges — while living happy lives.

In the bestselling “How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results,” Wojcicki (affectionately called Woj by her current and former students) outlines her approach by using a catchy acronym: TRICK. It stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness.

Her suggestions for trusting your children, cultivating their independence, respecting their individuality, and teaching them grit and “to give a damn” about others are totally reasonable, and even logical. However, they run counter to much wisdom found in an age of helicopter, tiger and snowplow parenting, in which moms and dads seem prepared to do (almost?) anything to assure their kids get ahead.

‘How to Raise Successful People’ by Esther Wojcicki (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In her book, Wojcicki, 78, recommends working with your children, rather than against them. She is in favor of authoritative parenting and teaching, whereby adults create warm, but firm relationships with children. Such adults are willing to consider children’s opinions and engage them in discussions and debates.

Her approach is about setting reasonable limits and expectations, and creating scaffolding upon which children can develop the social skills and responsible behavior they will need out in the world.

“How to Raise Successful People” is full of illustrative anecdotes from Wojcicki’s years raising the three daughters she has together with her husband Stan, an emeritus professor of particle physics at Stanford University. The girls walked to school on their own, worked after-school and summer jobs, learned to budget, and were allowed to fail and learn from their mistakes.

Although not explicitly stated, the obvious message is that Wojcicki believes that eldest daughter Susan‘s rise to CEO of YouTube, youngest daughter Anne‘s co-founding of personal genomics company 23andMe, and middle daughter Janet‘s success in the medical field are due in large part to their mother’s parenting methods. She also believes that it is the fortitude and collaborative skills she taught her daughters that enable them to navigate the difficult challenges and controversies they regularly face in their professional lives.

Esther and Stan Wojcicki. (Courtesy)

Similarly, Wojcicki contends that her award-winning journalism program, which she has led for 36 years, has taught thousands of students to be strong writers, and more importantly independent thinkers. Preferring to be “the guide on the side” rather than “the sage on the stage,” Wojcicki empowers older students to assume leadership of the newspaper and expects them to mentor younger students. Students must revise articles over and over until they get them right.

“I don’t give grades. I just make them revise over and over. It’s a plus and a minus. They never want to go home. It’s 11:00 p.m. and they still want to revise one last little thing before we go to print, and I am exhausted and just want to call it a night!” she told The Times of Israel.

Esther Wojcicki (bottom row center, in pink top) with staff of the Campanile student newspaper, Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, California, June 2014. (Facebook)

As the daughter of poor, uneducated Russian-Jewish immigrants growing up in an agricultural town near Los Angeles, Wojcicki could not have predicted that today she would be traveling around the world promoting her book, lecturing about her methods, and consulting for a variety of companies and organizations. However, by the time she was a teenager, her determination and unconventionality started to emerge.

Wojcicki was deeply scarred by the death of a baby brother who accidentally ingested a handful of aspirin. Several hospitals, assuming the family could not pay the bill, refused to treat the baby. By the time a hospital finally agreed to admit Wojcicki’s brother, it was too late. Wojcicki narrowly escaped death herself when there was a carbon monoxide leak in the family home and her mother told her to lie down on her bed rather than run out into the fresh air. Wojcicki vowed from that point on always to think and stand up for herself.

Education became her salvation. She attended the University of California at Berkeley on a full scholarship and never looked back. She went on to work as a journalist and later as a teacher, to the benefit of a myriad of young people who have been educated “the Woj way.”

Esther Wojcicki as a young mother (courtesy)

The Times of Israel recently interviewed Wojcicki about her book, her work, and how her early life influenced her approach to raising and teaching children.

Early in your book, you share difficult stories from your childhood. You warn people not to let traumas they experienced growing up to negatively influence their parenting. That’s easier said than done. How did you manage it?

It’s so hard to break out of those cycles. I had the instinct when my kids were little to whack them like crazy because I had been beaten all the time. There were no parenting books out there like today. I was just on my own path. The only thing was that I didn’t want them to experience what I had experienced. I was also very careful with anything with poison… I wanted to make sure that they knew how to protect themselves.

The Holocaust had a huge impact on your family. How did that affect you personally?

Half my family died in the Holocaust, including all my mother’s sisters. I grew up in a shadow. There were stories everywhere. There were all the these people we couldn’t be in touch with because they were either killed in the Holocaust or were stuck behind the Iron Curtain after the war. I didn’t realize the impact of it on me until later. It made me question a lot of things and strengthened my resolve to resist or not to cooperate if I were ever in such a situation.

You discuss in the book how you were turned off by [Orthodox] Judaism as a girl because you felt disenfranchised by it. You also mention weekly Shabbat dinners with your daughters and their families. What changed in your attitude to the religion in the meantime?

My relationship to Judaism has evolved. I couldn’t have a bat mitzvah because they didn’t allow them for Orthodox Jewish women. Most of my [11] grandchildren are in Jewish day school. They have all had bar and bat mitzvahs. I didn’t do anything to encourage my daughters to choose Judaism. Since my husband Stan is Catholic and I am Jewish, I exposed them to both Catholicism and Judaism, and took them to different churches and [Reform and Conservative] synagogues. I wanted them to have a smorgasbord of choices. I gave them the choice, and they all picked [Judaism]. They never said why they chose it. I guess they felt more comfortable and more connected.

You have written your book based on your parenting and teaching in Palo Alto, in the super-wealthy and entrepreneurial heart of Silicon Valley. How can you be sure that TRICK translates to other settings?

I think human behavior is universal no matter where you are. I grew up in poverty and went to a bad school system. I learned that what kept me doing what I’m doing is the tragedies in my life. I don’t want people to have tragedies in order to have goals. I just want them to have the same thing that I’ve got as a result of the tragedies. So that’s why I think it will work everywhere. What a kid needs to have is passion and grit to pursue whatever they want to pursue. And right now the system works against that because it rewards people who don’t take a chance, who follow instructions. As long as you think for yourself, the world will be fine. But right now we don’t have kids who think for themselves.

Knowing that your daughters Susan and Anne each have a net worth of $490 million and $690 million respectively, the word “successful” in your book’s title might be taken to describe financial success.

When I say “successful,” I mean people who are empowered to achieve the goals that they set, and have a community of friends or relatives who support their goals. People who feel control over their life are happier. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you own a lot of things and have a lot of money. It means that you can achieve what you hoped you could achieve. Kids can be whatever they want to be. There are so many paths to be happy in life.

From left, Anne, Janet and Susan Wojcicki arrive at the 7th annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center on Sunday, November 4, 2018 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Peter Barreras/Invision/AP)

Many, if not all, of the recommendations you make for empowering children and teenagers were introduced in teacher training programs as far back as 25 years ago. Why do you think they haven’t yet been widely implemented?

Historically the teacher is in charge. The teacher knows it all and is in charge and doesn’t want to give up that role. It’s about power. I’m trying to figure out how to get people to change centuries-old behavior teaching patterns. I am trying get educators to understand that with my approach they can get credit for things they don’t do. I tell them that not only will their life be easier and they won’t have to work so hard, but they will get credit for empowering the kids and creating a good educational experience for them.

The reason things are not changing quickly enough is because the system is so powerful. I don’t want to fight the whole system. I just want to share the space a little bit. If kids could just have a toe in the water, a little opportunity to try things they care about… It should really be a 50-50 split between teacher-led learning and student-led learning, but at this point I’ll settle for the kids determining 20 percent of the curriculum and pursuing a project of their choice that they get graded on for their effort, rather than the product.

So what was your reaction to the college admissions bribery scandal that first made headlines in March of this year?

It didn’t surprise me at all… All those helicopter parents. They won’t give up. They’ll do whatever it takes to get their child into the college of their choice — and by “their,” I often mean the parents. This was predictable 10 years ago. It’s just gotten more intense, that’s all. They’ve got to stop it, and the sooner the better. I was horrified, but it wasn’t surprising.

In this March 12, 2019 photo, William ‘Rick’ Singer, front, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, exits federal court in Boston after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, where ringers were hired to take SAT tests and proctors paid to look the other way. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

All three of your daughters have risen to the top of their male-dominated professional fields. I’m assuming that you are a feminist and that you raised your girls to be feminists.

No, I never said I was raising my daughters feminist. I never thought of myself as a feminist. I just wanted to make sure they were empowered human beings and make sure they could take care of themselves. We never talked about feminism and I never used the word feminism. I just wanted them to concentrate on the goal. Maybe I am a feminist, but I think of myself as an equal opportunity-ist.

So are you pessimistic or optimistic about younger generations’ ability to fix the overwhelming problems facing today’s world?

If they can use my system to be empowered, I will be optimistic. But I would say that as long as we continue to teach them with the same 20th- century methods that created the problems, we are never going to be able to get out of the problems that we have.

I’m not giving up, as you can see. We all need to fight… If we can get more kids involved in [the kind of] learning [I propose] and involved in solving the problems facing the planet, then I’ll be optimistic. I am hoping to be an optimist.

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