Arts

The Trick Raising Tech Execs:
Set Them Free

Paly teacher Esther Wojcicki explains 'How to Raise Successful People'
Children need space to learn lessons on their own, argues Palo Alto journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki. Photo by Jo Sittenfeld

If you want to prosecute the case that Esther Wojcicki is a terrible parent, there is ample evidence.

When her daughter Anne was 5 years old, she put the child on a commercial flight, unaccompanied, with a little necklace around the girl's neck on which was her name and birthday, "like a luggage tag," Wojcicki laughs.

Her other two daughters were allowed, at ages 6 and 7, to bicycle more than a mile to Patterson's, a now-defunct dime store in Palo Alto, crossing busy El Camino in the process, and linger there (or conceivably anywhere else) for hours with no GPS tracker, cellphone or even beeper (none of which, to be fair, were invented yet).

And, in case there's a statute of limitations on such outrages, more recently, Wojcicki let her two 8-year-old granddaughters shop at Target, by themselves, for what could have been up to half an hour, again unsupervised.

Yet, in this crazy, upside-down world we all live in, this woman is the author of a new book titled How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. Go figure.

Wojcicki is the well-known teacher of the celebrated journalism program at Palo Alto High School, where she is known as simply "Woj." She is also the mother of a trio of impressive and accomplished women: Susan, a pioneering Google exec who is now the CEO of YouTube; Janet, an anthropologist and epidemiologist at UC San Francisco; and Anne, co-founder of the genetics company 23andMe.

Working together, the Wojcicki daughters wrote the foreword to the new book, which is primarily a manifesto for what the author sees as sane parenting in an anxious world. It underscores that a parent's most important job — at least as it concerns the world outside the family—is often forgotten in the age of helicopter parenting: to create confident, independent, capable people. And, to do that, you sometimes need to ground the helicopter.

In one way, How to Raise Successful People is an answer to Amy Chua's bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which became a media sensation in 2011 when it was first published. Chua's book illustrated a stereotype of a style of demanding, authoritarian parenting which is the flip side of Wojcicki's approach. Chua and Wojcicki have even debated parenting philosophies in public forums.

Wojcicki's book is being published around the world and, she says, in Germany, her book will be sold as Panda Mom, a parallel with Chua that she admits she's not thrilled about. "They know what sells best in their country," she shrugs.

Still, she admits, she would love for her book to push Chua's aside on the parenting bookshelf. "I'm hoping to beat her, to be honest. I want to change the way we parent, to challenge all these tiger moms. You don't want to be a total dictator, but you don't want to be a free-range parent, either. My theory is that you want to be somewhere between the two."

Wojcicki employs a vivid mnemonic to illustrate her ideas: TRICK, an acronym for Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness. It's an approach that often requires allowing children to negotiate the world on their own, the resulting empowerment and self-confidence outweighing the relatively small safety risks.

As Wojcicki, 78, prepares for her North American and European book tour, her subject seems more pertinent than ever, considering the recent college-admissions scandal that exposed the corrupting influence of "snow-plow parenting."

"It couldn't have happened at a better time for me," Wojcicki says in her office at Palo Alto High, just across El Camino from the campus of Stanford, which was one of many schools ensnared in the scandal.

Wojcicki points to the scandal as an illustration of a broader and deeper crisis in parenting. She lives with her husband Stan, a physics professor emeritus, in faculty housing at Stanford. "I never see children on the Stanford campus," she says. "It's such a rare sighting. It's like seeing a kangaroo."

So, where are all the kids? "They're all programmed," she says. "They go to camps. They have play dates. They're being supervised all the time, which means they feel they can't do anything without being helped or supervised. They are more fearful. That's the problem."

How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results
Esther Wojcicki
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Out Now


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