Family & Education

'Jewish parents: back off and relax!'

Esther Wojcicki has three extremely successful daughters, including Susan, the CEO of YouTube. Now she's written a book to help other parents bring up their children in our "frantic, over competitive world"


Every parent, according to Esther Wojcicki, wants the same thing. We want our children to be healthy, happy and successful. We also worry. Will they be safe? Will they find their way in life? Will they cope with a hostile, competitive world?

Wojcicki faced all of these goals and concerns when her first child, Susan, was born, 51 years ago. Susan is now the CEO of YouTube. Two more daughters followed — Janet is a professor of paediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco and Anne is the co-founder and CEO of the website 23andMe which offers the public DNA tests giving reports on health and ancestry.

What’s more, for more than three decades Wojcicki has taught journalism at a high school in Palo Alto, at the heart of Silicon Valley. And she has ten grandchildren. She knows about children and she knows about parents. And, crucially, she knows what works, wisdom which she’s distilled into a book How to Raise Successful People, recently published in the UK. “The Godmother of Silicon Valley” she’s called on the book’s jacket, and also (as the title of the German edition) “The Panda Mom” — a direct comparison with Amy Chua, still famous for her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which detailed her struggle to bring her children up according to her Chinese heritage, setting high goals and enforcing hard work until her daughters achieved them. Wojcicki’s parenting philosophy is, she says, “diametrically opposed” to Chua’s. Thus the panda.

I meet her in London. She’s here on a quick trip to promote the book. We sit in the café at the Jewish Museum in Camden, occasionally interrupted by the babble of children here for a workshop. It’s a fitting place to discuss the adults of the future, and how Woj’s way (as her daughters call it) has its roots in her very Jewish family history.

She decided to write the book, she explains, to help people become better parents. In the last five years she noticed a change for the worse. “I saw a lot of helicopter parenting and it is counter productive. I saw a lot of very unhappy kids.”

Helicopter parenting, for those who haven’t come across the phrase, describes a parent hovering around their child’s life, paying very close attention, particularly to their education. Jewish parents are especially prone to this, she says, and are often “snowplough parents” as well — “trying to push away obstacles in their child’s way.” This combination, she says, creates anxious kids who feel they have no agency over their own lives. Communication breaks down because children are scared that parents will interfere too much. “They hide,” she says. “I think parents need to know that.”

And this can be magnified at Jewish schools (attended by six of her eight grandchildren), when a lot of over-protective, over anxious parents combine. Plus there’s the added complication of Jewish grandparents who often butt in, telling their own children where they are going wrong with their parenting. “It’s a problem! I understand it because I’m Jewish myself.” One entertaining anecdote from her book is her account of a shopping trip where she left two eight-year-old granddaughters alone in Target to choose their back to school essentials. Susan, their mother was horrified. It was a tricky moment but luckily all worked out well. The book is far more entertertaining than the average self help book, Wojcicki’s sense of humour and ability to tell a story shining through.

Why have things got worse recently? She blames the rise of social media, which often encourages parents to compare their child’s achievements with others and search for information on how they could be doing. “This stuff makes them nervous wrecks,” she says.

Hang on, I ask — you say social media is a problem but your daughter is head of YouTube! What does she think about the power of social media? “Susan wanted to democratise video. She wanted to give everyone a voice. And she succeeded. Only, none of us guessed that it was going to have voices that people don’t want to hear or are hateful or violent or problematic in some way. So it’s a difficult situation. On the one hand you don’t want to see those bad videos. On the other, you don’t want to be the censor for the world and block people’s right to speak. It’s tough. I have no advice. I don’t know what to do. I wish we could find some wise man or woman who’s going to tell us what to do."

YouTube recently started taking down content which is considered offensive. “Susan is aware, they’re doing their very best. She’s not a censor but is removing things that are hateful or disruptive. It’s a tough job but she’s up to it.”

Wojcicki has guidelines for children’s social media use and screen time — very limited in the early years and then teaching children to use their phones to get information and to understand the dangers that can come from social media. As for parents who post about their children, whether it’s cute pictures or praise for good results, she’s uncompromising. Don’t do it (unless it’s just for family). “Your kids are not pets. This is not a pet show. No one’s going to win a special award for being the best pet.”

She’s boiled her advice down into a mnemonic, TRICK — trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness, all tools to counter the “frantic, over competitive world which we’ve made for our kids.” The American and British education systems with their rote learning and lecturing don’t create the innovative team-workers that modern employers want, she says. In her journalism class she prefers hands-on project work and many companies want to apply her methods to train their employees. “The ultimate goal of TRICK is creating self responsible people in a self responsible world,” she writes. For parents that means treating children as adults whenever possible, giving them agency over their lives and being there to advise them when they ask for help.

That doesn’t mean raising entitled brats whose every whim must be followed. She emphasises the need to teach children how to work with others, and treat people well: “You can’t call people names, you can’t be racist or a bigot, you can’t do that. I want you to have a happy life, and these are the rules for having a happy life. You can’t function without those parameters. “

Her belief in the value of independent thinking comes from her family history. Her mother came from Siberia, her father fled pogroms in the Ukraine —walking all the way to Vienna to get papers to emigrate to the US — and many family members were murdered in the Shoah. Her birth, the first in America on both sides of the family, was celebrated: “I remember being the miracle child.”

Little Esther, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home often thought about the Holocaust. “Why did they co operate? I lost so many family members. They told you to go to the town square and everybody went…why did they do that? The whole thing has always been a puzzle to me. It’s a tragedy to think of all the relatives that I lost in that awful thing. It makes you understand the importance of community and getting along with the world. It’s so important for us all.”

Growing up, she was “terrified” to be Jewish — “The crazy thing is that I don’t look Jewish at all. I have blonde hair, blue eyes ,”— and was increasingly aware that being a girl meant she was not valued as much as a boy, cruelly confirmed when her baby brother was born and her father told her “Your brother Lee is a boy, and in our family boys are more important.” Lee was pampered, she was not, although her mother “made me feel important, despite what my father had said”. And she grew up “thinking I could do anything. Meanwhile Lee grew up thinking he always needed help and support. He was pampered to the point of paralysis, an unintentional consequence of all that devotion.” From this stemmed her belief in the importance of independent thinking.

She started working as a journalist as a teenager, to raise the money to go to college, and secured a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. There she met her husband, Stan, whom she married at 21. “I married a Catholic. Half the family disowned me.

“I probably married the worse kind, a Polish Catholic… and it worked out.We’re married to this day. He identified a lot — he saw all those Jews being carted off to Auschwitz. His mother was very unhappy with him marrying me, too. Marrying a Jew — she couldn’t imagine anything worse. She had just witnessed thousands of them being taken away.”

She never lost her Jewish identity and brought up her girls as part of the local community. “I gave my daughters a choice at the age of 12 whether they wanted to be Jewish or not. And they all picked Jewish.”

“A lot of my Jewish friends, their children ended up not Jewish and they always said to me, ‘What did you do to your daughters?’ and my answer is, ‘I gave them the choice’. When you pick it yourself that’s what you want to be. We need to stop being so dogmatic as Jews. People don’t trust their children.“

As a mother, “ I am always there to help them. They had to come to me, as opposed to me interfering with them. They had to work it out themselves . If they needed help, I was there. But I think what happens with the Jewish parent is they jump in before there is any request, That promotes more dependence."

So relax, trust your kids and let them find their own way.

If they are already secretive teens, she suggests the whole family reads the book and then discusses it: “It’s like a therapy session, but much cheaper.”

“Jewish parents, have more fun with your kids. I swear, they’re all going to be fine. They all have pretty good DNA to start with!”


How to Raise Successful People is published by Hutchinson


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