Is 'panda parenting' the key to rearing successful kids?
Esther Wojcicki has raised two CEOs and a professor of paediatrics. Now she's written a book for modern parents who've lost their way, she tells Julia Molony
Is Esther Wojcicki the world's most successful mother? If a parenting expert's credibility is to be measured not by the number of articles they've published or the letters after their name but by the accomplishments of their children, then Wojcicki can certainly claim to have aced the job.
In her professional life, Wojcicki (78), is a respected educator whose work at Palo Alto high (where she runs the journalism programme) means that she's regularly solicited for advice and mentoring by business leaders. But it's her attributes as a parent that have brought her the attention of the wider public. Her three daughters are wildly successful. The eldest, Susan, is the CEO of Youtube. Janet the middle child, is a professor of paediatrics at the University of California and Anne founded the biotech company 23andme which has brought genetic testing to the general public.
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She's just published a book, How to Raise Successful People, which outlines the parenting philosophy she's developed and honed over five decades, gently guiding her own children and her students to the fulfilment of their potential.
Wojcicki is a curious mix of progressive and old-fashioned. She's a champion of education-reform, a critic of high-pressure schooling and too much testing, a promoter of self-driven learning. Yet much of her parenting advice promotes a return to common sense and traditional notions of bringing up children well. She's an advocate of clear structure for kids and high parental expectations. But these things are always underpinned by key values of strong attachment, warmth, kindness and empathy. She's firmly opposed to divorce. "I have seen a lot of divorced couples, 50pc of America are getting a divorce," she says. "As a teacher I see a lot of this. And I can tell you the number one people suffering the most are the kids... So even though you might get a divorce and you think things are better, you are just trading one kind of pain for another. And the pain never goes away, ever. It diminishes. But it's never gone. I think people have a false sense that they're going to get a divorce and everything is going to be fine."
Her children have lovingly dubbed her approach the "Woj" method. But Wojcicki, ever the teacher, likes a good acronym to facilitate learning, so her approach is called TRICK, which stands for; Trust, Respect, Independent, Collaboration and Kindness.
Parents today, Wojcicki believes, have lost their way. An abundance of parenting literature and the proliferation of "experts" telling them what to do have caused them to lose faith in their own judgement. They are confused and beset with anxiety. She is a vocal critic of many of the best-known parenting styles; helicopter and snowplough parents she says, are led by worry and undermine their children. Tiger mothers overburden their children with projected ambition and risk triggering depression in their offspring. Her own style - encouraging independence from an early age, has been dubbed 'panda parenting'.
Wojcicki's daughters may have climbed to the very top of the ladder in their chosen careers, but unlike tiger mothers, she never emphasised success for its own sake. "My end goal for my children was always that I wanted them to feel that they were independent, in control and could do anything they decided to do," she says. "My theory is that if you feel in control and you are independent, whatever you want to do you are going to be happy about it."
Trust is the first principle of her method. Parents must first trust themselves and their instincts. They must also be prepared to entrust their child with responsibilities, rather than hovering over and second-guessing them. She's a big advocate of allowing children to manage simple tasks, like shopping, on their own, from an early age. When her own kids were pre-schoolers the family were living in Switzerland at the time and she sent Susan and Anne down to the store next to their apartment building on errands from the age of 4 and 5.
As a young mother herself in the '70s, Wojcicki knew first and foremost what kind of parent she didn't want to be. She'd learned the hard way through her own upbringing. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who had escaped the pogroms to build a new life in America. Her father was a harsh disciplinarian who believed "spare the rod, spoil the child." Her mother was more loving, but lacked agency, in her marriage and her life.
Two things happened when she was small that impacted her profoundly. First, her 16-month-old brother, the youngest in the family, swallowed a handful of aspirin tablets. Her parents had taken him to hospital but the doctors there had sent them away, and as a result of their negligence, he died. Later, she was at home with her mother and another brother when they started to feel unwell. It was carbon monoxide poisoning, though they didn't yet know it. Her mother instructed the young Esther to stay indoors while she went for help, but Esther followed her instinct and ignored the instructions, rushing outside. From these two things she developed a lifelong distrust of authority.
"At that point I was already reasoning that I was not listening to anyone else. I was going to do what I thought was best. That was a motivator for me. For me it was either life or death. That's why I became so interested in education. Education is a way to understand the world. And a way to understand life and to get along."
Adversity formed her and gave her grit, the quality, she says, that is lacking in many young adults today. "Nobody wants adversity. You're not looking for it. It's just that you have two ways to react. One is that you can fall apart and let it really destroy your life. Or you can take it and resolve you are never going to let it happen again. In my case it was a tragic thing that happened and for me the only way out - to make sure it wouldn't happen again - was to be informed."
Children, she says, can develop grit without suffering tragedy. "You don't want to arrange a difficult situation on purpose for your children, that would be terrible. But one thing you can do, to enable grit, is to believe in your child, to trust them. When you believe in your child, they believe in themselves. And when you give them the opportunity to do things they become more independent.
"The more you do for them, the less empowered they are. Because they think they need you all the time. So if they feel like they can do it themselves that gives them the leeway, the power to pursue. They're like, 'I can do it, because I know I've been able to do things on my own. I believe in myself.' The trust and respect in a child leads to grit. Everybody wants to know how to get the grit. Well, the way to get it is to believe that you can do it."
That principle, she says, applies to parents too. "They have to believe in themselves."