Words by Sharon McDonnell
A leading American educator, journalist and mother, Esther Wojcicki calls it like she sees it. “The number one problem with children today is that too many have no problem-solving skills,” she asserts. “They’re catered to all the time.”
Esther, a champion of student-centered, experiential education, is the founder of Palo Alto High School’s Media Arts Program, the biggest high school journalism program in the U.S. “Journalism is a front-row seat on life,” she says. A teacher for 40 years, until 2020, Esther is also the co-founder of several education nonprofits. Author of How to Raise Successful People and Moonshots in Education, she speaks frankly about education and childrearing, logging travel to Dubai, India, Austria and South Korea.
Born on New York’s Lower East Side to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Esther grew up near Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. She married Stan Wojcicki, the former chairman of Stanford’s physics department, in 1961. Now 81, Esther is the mother of three accomplished daughters: Anne Wojcicki, the CEO of 23andMe (and the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin), Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube and Janet Wojcicki, a UCSF professor of pediatrics.
Nicknamed the “Godmother of Silicon Valley” (Google was founded in Susan’s garage and home), Esther also has a fun-loving, irreverent side. She first ran into her husband-to-be, literally, while sliding down a staircase in a cardboard box in her dorm at UC Berkeley. She’s the sort of teacher whose students made a T-shirt showing a graphic of her stomping on the administration building—and another that said, “In Woj We Trust.”
It’s fair to say that Esther can always be trusted to provide thought-provoking insights.
Can you describe your child-rearing philosophy in a nutshell?
I have a five-concept model: trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. Parents should encourage their children to be independent, self-starting and empowered. I sent Susan and Janet to the store next door to buy bread alone at age five and four when we lived in Geneva, when Stan worked at CERN. If kids get whatever they want, they never struggle or understand the real value of pursuing something, and don’t develop their creativity and grit.
“Grit” is important to you. Why?
Call it drive, ferocious determination, resilience and passion, with a dose of self-control and patience: grit helps develop coping and problem-solving skills for the rest of your life. A study of the top 35 Fortune 500 companies found that 57% were founded or co-founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Adversity can build automatic grit—either you succumb to your circumstances or you fight tooth and nail to overcome them, which makes us stronger. The silver lining of poverty is grit…you have no choice but to use your creativity. I’m not arguing for imposing trauma or suffering on children, of course. But grit is a teachable skill.
Kids should be part of the family team and help out, not just expect the parents to do everything for them. I strongly suggest all teens get jobs, no matter the family income. There is no better way to learn how the real world works. My daughters were called the “lemon girls” since they sold lemons from a neighbor’s tree as kids, babysat and worked at a restaurant. I started working at 14 at a weekly newspaper in Sunland-Tujunga. If we give children the opportunity to figure things out in high school on a regular basis, they will be ready for the adult world.
What’s your view on “helicopter parenting?”
I call it “snowplow parenting,” clearing all obstacles in their way. It doesn’t teach kids that setbacks are a necessary part of life, they grow up terrified to take risks, and in the work world, expect everything to be handed to them and can’t handle criticism. Overprotective parenting has resulted in a generation of kids who don’t know how to do anything for themselves, let alone overcome fears, challenges and failures. You learn from your failures and develop a sense of mastery. Learning comes when students are willing to take risks.
Travel and education were your top priorities when you raised your children. Can you explain?
Seeing the world is the best education children can have, beyond temporary jobs. It broadens their thinking about what’s possible in this world. My daughters’ travels as teenagers and adults taught them a lot about culture. When Anne took the Trans-Siberian Express through Russia and visited my mother’s hometown in Siberia, I didn’t hear from her for months. Susan lived in India for a year after college. When Janet was teaching social anthropology in Johannesburg, she took me to a clinic in Soweto, where I met many of the young mothers there. Meeting someone’s mother is a great honor in their culture, so the women prepared a yummy feast for me. It was the most powerful Mother’s Day I ever had!
How should parents view their children?
See your child as an individual with his or her own opinions, interests and purposes. Encourage them to pursue their fascinations, set their own goals and be an expert in something, which makes them feel good about themselves. Parents tend to define goals for their children solely in terms of their own interests and experience—and project their fears and anxieties onto their children, especially when it comes to less familiar career and life choices.
How did your high school journalism program operate?
I spent 36 years running my classroom as if it was a professional newsroom. For our many student publications, students were tasked with real-world responsibilities and experienced real-world consequences. They sold ads in downtown Palo Alto at the start of each semester, came up with story ideas, decided who to assign, and, if they missed the printer’s deadline, had to pay a penalty and fundraise to do so. They chose topics like student depression, the Parkland school shooting in Florida, poor teacher performance. I was their “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”
Do you have a favorite quote?
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.” —Plutarch