A child’s future success has never been guaranteed, but past generations of parents had every reason to feel confident their kids would be better off. Unfortunately, as economic inequality has increased since the late 1970s, generational progress has ceased to be par for the American course: Gen Xers were about even with their parents, but most Millenials are worse off than their predominantly boomer parents. The crumbling promise of upward mobility makes raising conventionally successful kids a much more high-stakes pursuit for parents. Enter so-called experts eager to capitalize on collective anxiety.
As of May 7, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt dropped her How to Raise Successful People, Esther Wojcicki, the “godmother of Silicon Valley”, is the queen for the day of the genre. Her book, which well written and laudable in a number of ways, should make parents nervous – and not only because that’s what it was designed to do.
A Media Arts Teacher at Palo Alto High School, Wojcicki famously raised three very influential daughters: Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of 23andMe, Janet Wojcicki, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco, and Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. As a mother and educator known affectionately to her students as “Woj,” she claims to have stumbled upon secrets to success. Though she does suggest some interesting tactics, the content here is not really the core issue. The core issue is that Wojcicki’s focus on success outside of the broader economic and social context just adds to the overbrimming anxiety of modern parenting and, ultimately, isn’t helpful.
Let’s be clear. Woj is no monster. She recently told Forbes in a recent Q&A that her definition of success is having positive relationships. This is great. This is also fairly irrelevant given the way that her book is being marketed. The book is about raising kids to make money and climb the economic ladder. If that wasn’t the point, she would not be considered credentialled to write it. Whatever exists behind the front cover, which promises “Radical Results,” this is a tome about training kids to be successful, which is — among many other things — impossible.
Results-oriented striving doesn’t always work out for mom, dad, or the kids. Historically, when parents splash the pot on education, they end up in the poor house. A recent survey found that 62 percent of parents are carrying debt related to their kid’s extra-curricular activities and reported feeling stressed about those costs. These parents have also been found to be exhausted and overwhelmed. Sadly, according to a recent study from Cornell, most American parents see this kind of intensive parenting as the best way to raise children, regardless of their cultural or economic background.
Perhaps more pressingly, the focus on results and success has taken a toll on childhood too. According to a recent American Academy of Pediatrics Study, the push for achievement resulted in a 25 percent decrease in playtime between 1981and 1997. Today, 30 percent of Kindergartens no longer have recess and children aged 3 to 11-years-old have lost 12 hours of free time per week. The problem is so bad that the AAP now encourages pediatricians to prescribe unstructured play.
This is not to say that Wojcicki is suggesting parents relentlessly push their children toward success. In fact, her guidance, summed up in the too-clever acronym TRICK, is pretty boilerplate advice from child psychologists and parenting coaches. What does it stand for? Giving kids trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness.
This is fine advice, but it doesn’t take reverse-engineering the childhood of a genetic start-up CEO in order to arrive there. In fact, in How to Raise Successful People Wojcicki has effectively described the authoritative parenting style observed by developmental psychologist Dr. Diana Baumrind in 1966. Baumrind found that authoritative parenting, in which a parent is highly responsive and caring to a child while setting firm boundaries and using positive reinforcement rather than harsh discipline, resulted in positive outcomes compared to harsher or more permissive styles.
So, taken on its pedagogic merits, it’s safe to say that some parents who crack open How to Raise Successful People will find helpful if not particularly cutting edge advice. Good on Wojcicki for rewriting it. Still, the book is deeply troubling because it is being marketed based on the success of Woj’s children. This perpetuates the myth that kids can be raised to have high-profile, lucrative careers. This is post hoc ergo propter hoc nonsense. Just because Woj’s kids are successful, doesn’t mean that their childhood had much to do with it (though living in wealthy Palo Alto during a tech boom is probably good advice for results-oriented parents with money to burn).
There is far too much about child rearing that can’t be controlled for. How much of her daughters’ success is tied to the fact that they were raised by a woman who was so driven and smart that she completed her education at Berkley in three years? How much of her daughters’ success is due to the fact that their mother was fiercely independent and passed those values to her kids? How much of it is simply related to the fact that her daughters were raised in a solidly upper-middle-class California community by an award-winning educator and a Stanford University physics professor?
Lots. Lots and lots. Enough that the rest of the story is pretty much irrelevant. Woj’s daughters may have tremendous merits, but they didn’t succeed because we live in a meritocratic society. Leaping to that conclusion is intellectually ridiculous even if it is great marketing.
In the end, maybe that’s the real trick of the Wojcicki daughters’ success — not a catchy acronym but the uncontrollable circumstances of where they were born and to whom.
Here’s the thing: If parents share Wojcicki’s definition of success — good relationships, a place to live, a job and passions — they don’t need to read her book. In fact, all they need to do is love their kids, be present and ignore the marketing machine telling them that success is a high profile gig in Silicon Valley