Author and educator Esther Wojcicki wanted to be a journalist when she was growing up, and since 1984 has been a journalism instructor at Palo Alto High School, teaching hundreds of kids about media production and media literacy.
But when it came to her own daughters — Susan, Janet, and Anne — Wojcicki made a conscious choice not to urge them to follow in her footsteps.
“When they were growing up, I tried to make it clear you can do anything you want to do,” she said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher. “The only thing is I wanted them to be independent.”
Wojcicki and her husband Stanley seem to have done something right: Susan became the CEO of YouTube; Janet became an influential anthropologist and epidemiologist; and Anne became the CEO of 23andMe. Now Esther has written a book about her methods, titled How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results.
One of those “simple lessons,” she explained, is to trust your children and give them freedom and responsibility from a young age — a notion Wojcicki said is the “absolute opposite” of today’s prevalent “helicopter parenting” style, which she argued produces incapable, self-doubting kids.
“I trusted them early on,” she said of her children. “You know, you’re not a servant, they’re part of the family. So, they do things like, you know, Susan was busy folding diapers at the age of 2. She was taking care of Janet when she was 3. ‘Taking care of’ means I was nearby, but she was responsible for entertaining her, making sure she didn’t cry, and things like that.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Esther.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who just wants Esther Wojcicki to adopt me and then I’ll be really successful, but in my spare time I talk tech. You’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair, obviously, is Esther Wojcicki, a journalist and educator whose last name might sound familiar to listeners of the show. One of her daughters, Anne Wojcicki, is the CEO of 23andMe, and another daughter, Susan Wojcicki, is the CEO of YouTube, and both of them have been on this podcast several times. And her third daughter, Janet, is a well-known epidemiologist.
Now Esther has written a new book, appropriately titled How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results.
Esther, welcome to Recode Decode.
Very excited to be here.
How long have we known each other? Forever. Where did we meet?
Forever. Before you were so famous that you are now ...
I’m not famous, Esther.
I’m tech famous. That’s very different than regular famous. But in any case, when did we meet back? Way back when, right?
Maybe at least maybe 10 years ago.
I’m sorry to tell you, 20.
Oh my God.
In the beginnings of Google, right?
Yes. Actually, we met in 2000.
In 2000, like when Google was starting to get big.
When Google was starting.
Right, and you are, you’re the mother of Susan Wojcicki, who was one of the original people. They founded it in her garage, essentially.
We met because we were very interested in journalism and you taught journalism. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. One of the things, you’ve written this book and I want to get to it because there’s a lot of topics, the college thing this week and everything else, but you were a professor, you’re a teacher of journalism, which I love. I’ve been to your class. Talk about how you got to do that. You’ve done it for like 412 years or something like that. You’ve been there for a long time. Explain where you are.
Yeah. I started in 1984 at Palo Alto High School. The reason I became a teacher was because it was too far for me to drive from Palo Alto to San Francisco to be a reporter.
Oh, OK. You wanted to be a journalist.
I’m a born journalist. I started when I was 14 at a local high school, or no, local newspaper. Yes.
You did that. Did you practice? You practice journalism.
Yes, I did.
Explain what you did.
I worked for the Los Angeles Times. I wrote a column about teenage life when I was a teenager.
What were teens doing then, Esther?
Nothing as exciting as they’re doing now, to be honest. It was kind of boring.
What was one of your columns?
Well, one of my columns was about what teens are thinking today, or what they were thinking back then.
Any thoughts? Do you remember?
They were trying to do a lot of the same things they are today, get out from under the control of their parents.
Right, which we’re going to talk about.
That was the main thing. Then they were talking a lot about dances, which are kind of boring today.
Yes. They don’t do, my kids refuse to go to dances. It’s like the worst thing you could mention. I’m like, “That sounds fun!” They’re like, “Go away, Mom.” Anyway, you did that and then you taught. How did you get to Palo Alto High School? By the way, this is a school that a lot of tech people go to. They go to all the private schools in the area too, but there’s a lot of tech parents at Palo Alto High School.
Yes. A lot of tech parents. One of them, for example, was Steve Jobs. His daughter was in my class.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Lots of them.
Tell me about your teaching, why you decided to do that, teach journalism.
I decided ... It was just I had three kids, small kids. I thought ...
These are your daughters.
My daughters. I couldn’t travel easily to San Francisco because that was what was required back then. I said, “If I can’t be a journalist, why not just teach journalism?”
I applied to the school district. The program was really small. There were only 19 kids at the time. I said this is perfect. I have the perfect schedule. Go to school when they go to school, get out when they get out. Not only that, same vacations.
Did they go, they went to the school?
No. They went to Gunn.
Which is nearby. That’s another public school.
Nearby, yes. Unfortunately, they could not get into Paly because they were getting ready to close one of the schools. The population was really small, and so they didn’t allow any new kids into Paly.
They went to the nearby other public school.
They went to the nearby school, which turned out to be pretty good.
It’s a great school. All the public schools down in Silicon Valley are quite strong. There’s other issues about pressure and things like that, like there are many, but they are certainly fantastic public schools. You did that for ... you started ... What was your theory of teaching journalism back then, in the 80s?
Initially, my theory was ... Well, first of all, they told me what to do all the time. When you’re a new teacher, they give you the book, they give you the students, and they’re like, “Make them learn it.”
Teach the book.
“Teach the book. Give them a test on Friday. Make sure they know what they’re doing according to the book.” I did that for about a year, a little more, at which point I realized my students weren’t learning anything. The question was like, “What am I going to do? Maybe I should just quit. This is ridiculous.” The other alternative was maybe get a therapist to help me, or I could just throw away the curriculum.
Which you famously did.
I did. I threw out the curriculum and decided that I was going to put a lot of control in the hands of the students. This, back in 1984-85, was considered heresy. No one did that. Students were always controlled, always sitting in rows, always listening, no talking except to the teacher.
Tell me, explain to me what you did, what you were teaching, how you decided to teach journalism back then.
I decided that the most effective way was to have them collaborate and work on the different parts of the paper themselves, because it was actually their paper and they should not just be writing about my ideas. They should be writing about their ideas. I put them in groups and had them work on ideas that they thought were important and had them do the layout and the design and all the things.
Turns out it worked really well. The word spread around the school, so I went from the initial 19 kids in the program to 30 and then from 30 to 50 and then from 50 to 70. I kept growing and growing and growing. Of course, the administration wanted to know what I was doing in that class. “What are you giving those kids, free pizza or something?” Turns out I was giving them freedom. That was the key.
To do that and do journalism.
And do journalism.
To learn journalism by doing journalism.
Right, because then they had an audience for their ideas and nowhere else were they getting an audience for their ideas. I legitimized giving students control and an audience for their ideas.
When you did that, it was unusual. I was at Columbia during that time, around then. I was just starting [at] Columbia, and it was a lot of book learning at the time, I remember. There was some doing, but there was not as much doing as you might have imagined, which was interesting to me. I hated school. I didn’t like school. In my journalism classes in college, they just weren’t doing. They weren’t making. I think of journalism as making.
What I did is I threw away the textbook and instead, you know how they give away free papers? They have a little stack of free papers?
I just want to tell you what I did in the mornings. I went and took the whole stack and then I passed them out in my class. The advantage was that kids were reading real newspaper. That was the model for how to do it. I said, “We’re reading news today. Let’s look at the news stories.
How they put them together.
“Let’s look at how they put them together. Why don’t we see whether you can do the same thing?” All the kids all thought it was great. They loved reading the newspapers. There was no problem whatsoever. There was no memorization. It was just doing. “Can you replicate what you see there?” We did all the writing styles. Features and reviews and sports and opinion and editorial. Everything.
The name you had was Woj, right? The Woj?
Originally I started with my name and then I had ...
My first editor created the name Woj. After that, that was over. Everybody in the school called me Woj.
That’s what everyone says, “Do you know The Woj?” The Woj.
The, that’s right. My email initially was thewoj@hotmail. Then unfortunately that account got hacked, so it just became woj@gmail.
Which is a good idea since your daughter is one of the key executives at Google for many of the early years and now she runs YouTube. One of the things about journalism is you also morphed and changed.
I morphed and changed dramatically.
Talk about that, because one of the things you did, I remember going to the party where you had built this building. You got this building built at Palo Alto High School that literally is nicer than any journalism place I’ve ever worked — I was like, “I want to work here” — with all kinds of bells and whistles and studios and everything else. I think it was like, Larry and Sergey were at the opening along with John Doerr and all these ... I was like, “Hey guys, regular journalists would like to work under these conditions.” You were providing this amazing building to the students.
Right. That opened about four years ago. Before that, I was in a portable.
Yeah, you were. I remember. I visited you in the portable.
That’s right. Turns out you can build the program in any kind of facility. You don’t need to necessarily have a wonderful building like I have. It worked really well in the portable. Actually, as the program grew, they just added portables. More portables, more places. When I wanted the kids to interact with each other, I was like, “What am I going to do? I now have 80 kids and they can’t all be in the same place at the same time.” I went out and I bought a lot of walkie-talkies. The kids all carried walkie-talkies around. They felt very important talking to each other on the walkie-talkies.
What did you make, then? You made newspapers? What are the things ... Back then it was newspapers.
Back then I made newspapers. Then in 2000, I created ... no. First in 1998, I created a website.
Right, which was unusual.
Which was, oh my God, it was so unusual because at that point, the school board was like, “You cannot take pictures of students. The only thing you can do is take a picture of the back of their head.” And so we had to have a little discussion. At some point, they came around. People were kind of afraid.
Then in 2000, I created a magazine called Verde. It was a news sort of literary sort of magazine. Within the first year, we did it four times in the first year, and the administration was like, “Magazine? Students don’t do magazines. High schools don’t have magazines. This is never going to work.” I did it in the back of my class with another group. The first year, we won a gold crown from Columbia. That was extremely helpful. Thank you so much to Columbia. They then allowed me to hire a teacher.
You did that. You did magazines, websites, you have a TV studio now, right?
And radio and podcasting?
Yes, all of them. Podcasting, radio, television, magazines, newspapers. We also make our own movies and videos and we post to YouTube.
With an orientation towards the internet, too, a very heavy orientation.
Very heavy orientation. The idea is to teach kids how to use the internet intelligently, and also in doing so, they learn how to not be fooled by fake news because they know what a resource is and they know what it looks like to put together a correct story.
Right now you have how many students?
There’s seven other teachers and there’s about 700 students.
In the program, which is amazing.
In the program.
What is your theory of journalism now? And then I want to get to how you decided to do this book.
My theory of journalism is that ...
Teaching journalism. Journalism is the way to teach kids to think. It is the No. 1 way, and journalists have these skills. They collect information, they try to sort through it and figure out what’s most important. Then they have to write about it in a way that makes other people want to read it. Then they have to use these tools to publish.
If everybody could get information and figure out what’s most important, it would change the world. Right now they just have a lot of information and they can’t figure out what’s most important. It’s training for kids, like thinking skills, critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, the No. 1 skills kids need for the 21st century.
Where do you think the state of journalism is right now? It’s under assault, obviously.
It’s under assault.
Part of it has to do with Google and Facebook and everything else, that it’s so confusing as to what is good and what is not.
Right, but if all kids have the opportunity to be trained in media literacy, they will then be able to make these decisions and act intelligently. I don’t care whether they’re doctors or lawyers or professors or gardeners, whatever. They need these skills.
They need these skills. Do you worry for them as you’re teaching them in this environment, especially with the advent of “fake news?” Again, those things proliferated because of the internet and things that you are close to.
How do you look at that? How do you combat that given the massive amount of information? The internet companies are having a hard time dealing with it. To be the kindest, it’s overwhelming. To be unkind, they haven’t been watching it very carefully.
They haven’t been, but the No. 1 people that are tricked by the fake news are people over 50. They are the ones that share all the fake stories. They have had no training on the internet, so the younger kids, they’re more suspicious because they’ve been trained, especially kids in my program. They’ve been trained, so they are very careful before they share anything. I’ve been working with the Newseum in Washington, DC. They have a whole program on, “Should you share this or not? What is real?”
That’s closing, right? The Newseum is closing?
The Newseum, the building is closing, but the website will still remain. You can still go online.
I know Walt Mossberg is working on a media literacy project, too. There’s a lot of stuff going on around that idea, teaching especially young people this.
Right. I think it should be required. It should be part of the civics curriculum.
Is there a civics curriculum anymore?
There was. The civics curriculum needs to come... By the way, you know the reason I sound so sexy?
I just am getting over laryngitis. I normally don’t have such a sexy voice.
Okay, Esther. Thank you for clarifying that, for our listeners. Then you decided to write this book because you’re, besides being famous in Palo Alto High School among students, because everybody’s been taught by The Woj.
And again, I loved visiting your class. Your students were incredibly engaged and had great ideas and really gave me a hard time, which I like, in a good way, in a really smart way.
Was that you’ve written this book and it’s called, the book is called How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. You have three children that are very successful, like unusually. I was going to call you Mother of Dragons, essentially, but internet dragons, or very successful people. Talk to me about why you decided to write this book besides the fact that you have these amazingly successful daughters.
I wrote it because not only are my daughters really successful, my students are also extremely successful. I keep getting these emails from them or letters or Christmas cards or whatever telling me that what I did changed their life. And so I thought, “Gee, if it’s so impactful for everybody, maybe I should share that with the whole world.” The question I always ask them, “So what did I do that made such a difference?”
Right. Did you not know?
No, I didn’t know.
Is this idiot savant?
I did not know. They all said to me, “You trust us.” I said, “Is that a big deal?” It turns out it’s a very big deal.
This book, you were also talking about your students and stuff, but let’s focus on your daughters, because people do note that you have these, even on the book here it’s like super daughters or whatever. “Superstar daughters.” It says, “Shares her tried and tested methods for raising happy, healthy, successful children using trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness,” which you called TRICK.
Talk about that.
TRICK. It turns out it’s really important. Of course, I learned this from my students, that have told me about it. So, what happens is when you trust a student, all of a sudden they realize they can trust themselves. And they’re willing to take a risk and willing to do things that they might not otherwise have been willing to do.
So, that’s what I did with my children, I trusted them early on.
How does that manifest itself? We’re going to go through each of these. But how does trust manifest? What does that mean?
So, that means you give them opportunities to do things, actually around the house. You know, you’re not a servant, they’re part of the family. So, they do things like, you know, Susan was busy folding diapers at the age of 2. She was taking care of Janet when she was 3. “Taking care of” means I was nearby, but she was responsible for entertaining her, making sure she didn’t cry, and things like that. They worked with me in many ways, and then also I trusted them to go places by themselves. Okay, so they would go next door by themselves, that sounds ...
Right, you lived in Palo Alto?
I live on Stanford campus.
And then they would go ...
So, your husband, just to be ... not to leave him out of the picture, he’s a very famous physicist.
That’s right. Professor of physics at Stanford.
Yes. Quite a big name.
He’s a big deal.
A big deal. And so, they would go next door to play with other kids or visit the neighbors, we had some very helpful, wonderful neighbors. Or they would go to the swim club by themselves, they all learned to swim really early. They learned to ride a bike really early, they learned to read early, because I wanted them to read street signs. And I wanted them to be as independent as they could be at the age when most ...
So, this is respect and independence?
This is respect and independence.
And so meaning that a lot of ... You were talking about ... You were saying this was the opposite of helicopter parenting?
Absolute opposite. I trusted them to do what I thought was important. And for example, when they were 11 and 12, Susan and Janet flew to France by themselves, going through JFK, transferring by themselves.
Most parents would be like, “Ahh!”
Most parents would be freaked out by this. Of course, well, actually airports are even safer today than they were back then.
But they made it, there was no problem. Of course, they complained that it was a little difficult, but they did it.
So, by doing that, they believed in themselves, that they could do anything.
Right, that they could go around.
And so, what happens is when parents today do so much for their kids, the kids feel they cannot do anything without the parents’ help.
Right, exactly. Or they feel dependent on it.
They feel dependent.
And, I mean, that continues all the way through college, where the kid just doesn’t feel empowered to do it without somebody there telling them whether they are doing it right or wrong.
Instead of they themselves. So, in my program, what I do is I give kids so much independence that by the time they’re done with being with me for two years, they are really empowered.
And then the respect part is not calling them idiots.
The respect part is ... I’ll tell you, some of the ideas that they come up with are, I mean, wacky as all ...
Yeah. The other day my kid was like, “There’s no bad ideas.” I go, “There are!” And that one was one.
There are bad ideas, yes. But I don’t say it.
I let those bad ideas surface, I let them bat those ideas around, and for the most part, 95 percent of the time, they have rejected on their own those bad ideas.
As they go through ... so respecting their process.
As they go through ... Look, right, the process of talking to each other and trying to understand why things are the way they are. And they have come up with amazingly mature decisions by going through the process on their own.
And then collaboration?
Well, try to put a newspaper together by yourself.
You know, this is a 24- to 28-page full-size newspaper.
I can do that.
You can do that? Well, it’s as big as the New York Times.
And so, try to put that all together, you have to put advertisements and pictures and every page has at least four stories, maybe five stories. And you know, you’ve got to coordinate everything. So, you must collaborate with the kids, and with every ... They all have to collaborate with each other, there’s like 50 kids all working together. They don’t all love ...
How did it manifest itself with your kids?
Oh, my kids. Yes, they all had to work together, too.
That was, you know ... I mean, my kids were not abnormal, they fought with each other too, it was constant battles about this and that. Janet wanted Susan to wear these clothes, Susan wanted Janet to wear that. You know, they were stealing clothes out of each other’s closets.
Oh, it was Anne this whole time.
Oh, poor Anne, well, Janet locked ...
Is Anne the baby?
Anne’s the baby.
Yeah. Janet locked Anne in the closet. That’s after deciding on which clothes to wear, right? But you know, Anne kind of watched the whole thing and then participated when it was effective. Anne became the diplomat in the whole family.
But, I mean, they made a lot of decisions about like where we should go on the weekend. You know, what should we be eating tonight? What kind of food did they think was good? Did they want to help pick the food for the restaurant? They made a lot of choices. And they also made a lot of choices about what classes they wanted to take and what activities they wanted to do in the summer. I didn’t force them to do things.
So, they had to collaborate together? And then kindness? Which was I think the last one. The K.
Kindness? Kindness is the key. Kindness and love. I’m not kidding. All kids needs to feel that the teacher’s kind and if you do a survey of most students in most schools? They will tell you there’s no kindness in the school. And so, in my classes I try to be kind. Everyone makes mistakes. And so, I give them the opportunity to rectify those mistakes. And most of the time my opportunity to rectify the mistakes is that you have to stay after school with me. And you have to write an essay about what it was that you did that created problems, and then you have to rethink it. And then I bring the kids together, whoever created problems for the other kid, to talk about it. I believe in discussion and being forgiven. Carrying grudges just makes everybody angry and bitter and then you get sick.
And so, it works so well. I mean, the kids all get along. And these are kids ... Half of my kids are from immigrant families.
And your own children seem to really get along really well. It’s really quite remarkable.
All three of my kids get along really well.
People when they look at your family, you get ... As a group, you get awards together, because you know ... I think what they first focus on is the accomplishment, the enormous wealth that they’ve created, the success that they’ve had, and things like that. How do you deal with that, as a group of people? Because you look like someone who’s raised really ... And especially daughters, because it’s much harder, I think, to raise daughters in this environment, especially in a tough environment like Silicon Valley — and in medicine, too.
Right. So, the goal is to always talk about any kind of problem that you have. Be open for it, don’t carry grudges. And you know, we’re here to support each other and that’s part of what governs my family, it governs the kids, and governs everything that’s part of it. All three of my daughters are great friends with each other.
And as you can imagine, in families, people get mad at each other. And I think one of the No. 1 problems is that they get mad and they stay mad and then they don’t work it out. And as long as that goes on, what you’re doing, the person that carries the anger, is you are totally stressed. And then you get ... the stress really impacts you for life.
So, in that way, these ideas that you are talking about have gotten further and further away from us, and especially in this age. You called it helicopter parenting, and I want to get to two issues: this college admissions thing that just happened and also the way that the internet culture diminishes people. It’s not been a positive influence of late, it’s talked about. But first, when the idea of this, of creating these superstar children, that’s what everybody wants to do.
That’s the achievement. And obviously, your kids have achieved a lot of achievement. Is that over-indexing when it comes to your kids and stuff like that? Is that bothersome for you, that like, “Oh, I have these superstar daughters.” Or ...?
You know, I never, never ever expected them to do what they’re doing, ever. I just wanted them to be happy in whatever it was they decided to do.
So, I was not on the road of, “This is what you have to do.” They fell into it. Susan, for example, she majored in French and English, history and lit.
Mm-hmm. I didn’t know that.
I mean, what do you do with that?
Right. Speak French. Very useful. Well, actually I love France, so it is useful in France. Janet, she majored in anthropology and international relations. What do you do with that?!
And then, well, Anne was more practical. She majored in biology, okay? So, she knew she wanted to do something connected with the human body, at least that, you know?
But they didn’t have any idea of what they were really doing. When they were growing up, I tried to make it clear you can do anything you want to do.
So, you weren’t pressure-y?
No. I was ... The only thing is I wanted them to be independent.
My biggest pressure was independence. I want you to do whatever it is you want to do. And you know, I made it really clear it didn’t matter whether you were a girl or a boy, you know, you could do it.
Oh, it does matter if you’re a girl.
No, but I said to them ...
So, you said it doesn’t matter, but it does. So, how did you, you know, jump that ...?
So, I said, “If there’s a problem, you know, if there’s some sort of discrimination ...” And there was a lot of discrimination on Wall Street, when Anne was working there. I said, “You know, you’re just going to have to cope with it and laugh it off and keep moving forward.” Look at your goal. Follow where you want to go. Don’t get diverted by, you know, “this thing happened and that thing happened” and carrying grudges against this one and that one. Just work on, “This is my goal.”
She was the head of a biotech fund and her goal was, “Can I make that biotech fund the best it can be?” And of course along the way there were all these people that were creating problems for her. But, you know, if you don’t carry animosity, then you can actually achieve your goal, and that’s I think the main thing that happened for her.
Though there are systematic things in place for many people that, like here in Silicon Valley, it’s really stacked up against women, for example.
Well, it was stacked up against me when I first started as a reporter, I could not get into the San Francisco Press Club because women weren’t allowed. And so, it was pretty, pretty awful, and there were a lot of things like that stacked up against Susan and against Janet and against Anne, and you just have to persist. And you have to show people in the room that you are the best at doing that, and okay, well maybe there was some issues, you know, male-female issues, but we’re going to work on the project. We’re going to work on where we’re going and not get diverted by all the other stuff that’s going on. Because if you get diverted, then you lose focus of where you’re going.
Right. Right. Although, you know, it’s sometimes hard, not everybody has the perseverance.
It is hard. It is really hard.
And, you know, so I’m ... I think the #MeToo movement has been fantastic for helping women. But in some cases, it’s been a little too strong, as some men have had problems when maybe they have ... They’ve been tried by the press, as opposed to some of the things that they might have actually done. So, I think we’re going to come to an equilibrium, you know, this is how it starts, this is how it works. And so, Susan, as, you know, the leader in many cases in the room, as one of the only women that’s started ...
She’s one of the highest-ranking women in Silicon Valley, I think she’s probably ... Like two or three.
Right. I think she’s ... Right. She focused on what she was doing and not on all the stuff that was happening around on the other side.
What’s happening this week is this college admissions scandal where all these ... This is exactly the kind of thing you’re talking against in the book. So, can you talk a little bit about, like when this popped up, what did you think? Because this is people facilitating their children to get into things by cheating, essentially. And not trusting them and not giving them independence and, you know, handling them in ways that are disturbing, to say the least. I would love to get your thoughts on that.
This college cheating scandal is just the ultimate helicopter parenting. So, the people that are participating in this, let’s just ask yourself why are they doing that? They’re doing this because they don’t trust and believe and respect their kids. They think their kids, by themselves, on their own, will not be able to make it. And so, a lot of the kids weren’t even aware that their parents were doing this. But their parents were paying to make sure that they got into the college of their choice — “their” being the parents’ choice.
Right? So, how does that child feel?
So, how does it happen? You say this, it’s like there’s parental anxiety, it starts with parental anxiety, over achievement and or lack thereof.
It’s because parents think there’s a very narrow path to success, and if they don’t follow that narrow path to success, the kid will fail. And so, there’s been a lot of ... There’s a book written about how to raise an adult and talks a lot about one of the problems they see happening at Stanford, which is parents whose kids actually even get into Stanford, they move to Palo Alto to be next to their kids, to help them in their classes.
What? Man, one of my kids goes to college, “Goodbye! See you. Good luck!”
In case they need some help, and some of the Stanford professors have even complained that when a kid does poorly in the class, the parent calls up. What is this all about? This is helicopter parenting to the extreme. And the No. 1 thing kids say, the No. 1 problem is they say, “I feel like I am not in control. I don’t have control of my life.” And that’s why so many kids are depressed.
And taking all these bad things, because they are emotionally upset. There is no control, they have no control.
So, that’s a really important part, is this idea of having control over this. Were you surprised by this scandal?
Actually, I wasn’t surprised, because I’ve seen so much helicopter parenting. And unfortunately there’s even been ... Part of this scandal is at Palo Alto High School.
Right. Right. So, talk about that, because there’s been a bunch of tech people. The focus was on a lot of these celebrities, which is interesting to the public at large, but there’s been quite a few tech people in this, and the pressures are enormous. These tech people, they’re wealthy, they want their kids to achieve, obviously.
They’re willing to pay for it.
They’re willing to pay for you to get your child into that college. And I think that is ... What does that say to the kid? It says to the kid, “Well, without me you can’t be successful.” You know? These people ... Maybe they do not want to be a tech person when they grow up, maybe they want to do something ... Maybe an artist or maybe they want to be an actor, or maybe they want ... There’s so many other things.
These people, they should have the right, these young people, to do what it is they want to do in life, and if they don’t want to live a life of supreme wealth, they don’t have to. I mean, all the studies show that being really wealthy does not lead to happiness, so why are we pushing all this stuff? Can we help these kids lead the life that they want to lead?
Is that very different? You are in an area of the country that’s high pressure. I mean, there’s tech people that are so go, go, go and so aggressive. Can you talk about how you deal with that as being a teacher and also raising kids here?
As a teacher, I talk to my students about how important it is for them to be who they want to be, and even though their parents might not agree with what their choice of career is. And I say ... my students feel very ... they’re happy about that, let me tell you. And then also, I talk to parents about that as well. I mean, the misconception that we have actually world-wide is that consumer goods lead to happiness, and that is not true. What leads to happiness is relationships, being in a supportive community. If you look at these blue zones around the world where people live the longest, they live the longest in areas where there is a lot of support and a sense of community, not a lot of wealth. So let your kid be what they want to be.
But how do you deal with it then? I mean, you have very wealthy children. You have very ... you operate in a very wealthy environment. You hang with very wealthy people. How do you ... you know?
So we make it really ... we don’t give our kids a lot of stuff. They all have to go to work when they’re 13 or 14, they work and they get jobs and they do things. They are not given a large allowance. They are not given cars when, you know, you should be able to buy your car. They have to do a lot of work around the house. They’re part of the community of the family. They’re not considered ... we’re not the servants and they’re the little princes and princesses.
So, I think it’s important for them to realize that also, they have to give back to society, they have to help other people. They do a lot of donating time and energy. My oldest grandson worked, he’s 17, he worked as a cook in a camp all summer long while he was 17. He could have done something else. And my ... the second-oldest grandchild, she’s working on climate issues and she is not working on like, “Can I be the most beautiful? Can I hang out with the richest people?”
“Am I among the richest?” Yeah.
I think you get a lot of satisfaction in life from helping other people. That’s where the satisfaction comes from. That’s where my satisfaction as a teacher ...
But how difficult is that, like really, truly? I mean you’ve got now grandchildren that are part of this, and you all live really beautifully, I mean, the fact of the matter is you do, although your house isn’t very fancy, if I remember.
No, my house is just normal.
It really is.
And I did not move to a fancy house.
I know, I went to your house once. I had to go to this party and I was like, “Oh yay, it’s going to be a fancy party at a rich person’s house.” And I got there and I’m like, “Ah, this isn’t that nice a ...” Like it’s a nice house, it’s a really lovely house, but I was like ... and you had food from Safeway, so I loved it. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so good.”
That’s right. I’m just an ordinary person. I just don’t want to be part of this crazy, fancy house, big ... whatever. Because I don’t think that’s where the happiness comes from.
So how do you, besides the wealth part of it, your kids and your sons-in-laws and everyone else has been part of the growth of the internet, and some people feel this is corrosive to kids. How do you look at that? Because I worry about my kids and YouTube. I worry a lot about YouTube. I worry about what they’re seeing and how it’s being monitored and things like that. I worry about Facebook. I worry about Instagram, Twitter, all these things, and just video games. So I think a lot about the prevalence of always online.
Now luckily, my kids really aren’t that ... they don’t spend a lot of time in there. They do Snapchat, they try to keep away from a lot of sharing and stuff like that. They don’t embrace it as much, which is fine, it’s their choice. How do you look at that? When you’re teaching kids, and also your grandchildren, and your own kids are part of the creators of this. How do you look at that?
So, I think kids need to be taught, and the device should not be banned. It should be taught, “How do you use your device intelligently?” They need to understand like, what are the risks and what are the benefits? And it’s just like anything in life that you ban. I mean, how effective were we when we banned alcohol, prohibition? It didn’t work. And how effective are we today when we ban drugs? It doesn’t work. And so, if you take your kid’s phone away and then don’t explain to them why, and let them self-control, let them manage some of this themselves, they don’t learn the skills you want them to learn.
So with my grandchildren, this is exactly what they do. They have certain times when they work on or get to play on the internet. But they can’t be on it all the time. And they have to understand how it works and what are the good sites, what are the bad sites, what are problems with it, what are dysfunctions with it? And they need to understand that everybody on the internet might look happy, especially on Facebook, but let me tell you ...
Or Instagram. They are not happy. You know, they’re posting that ...
It’s performative, I call it performative. My kid calls it a “museum” and I call it a performative ...
It is performative. It’s like you put together those pictures showing how happy you are. But they’re fake in many cases. You know, maybe you aren’t that happy. You’re just posting it.
Mm-hmm. And so, on the whole, how do you assess the impact of the internet? Has it been a good thing? Right now, we’re in a phase where everybody hates tech, and I’ve been tough on tech, as you know.
Which I think you like.
Yes, I do.
How do you assess it? I mean, I think I’ve been fairly critical. I’m trying to be fairly critical about ... and I want the people of tech who are in power to start thinking about what they’ve done and how to do it better. If you, overall, had to assess tech, how would you right now, compared to where it’s going and how it started? It started off with such great promise, it was going to be like Star Trek every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
I’m going to agree with you quite a bit. Because I think there has been a lot of negative stuff associated with tech. I think one of the biggest problems has been Twitter and how people can just post any crazy thing they want to on Twitter. And then other people who don’t know better share it. And that creates a lot of problems.
I think the news, while we have tried to give everybody an opportunity to share the news and on YouTube, it’s got everybody an opportunity to be a video creator, which is fantastic. But it’s also brought out some of the worst, worst in human beings. And so the question is, how do we control that? And I don’t have the answer. I wish I had the answer on how to do it.
Why do you think it got like that? I just recently interviewed Susan, we talked really about the stuff that’s going on on YouTube and the ability to find really awful things too quickly, and the ability not to get rid of fake things and how you go down this wormhole really quickly from normal places. Like from places where you don’t think that that’s going to happen. And it’s not just YouTube, it’s Facebook, obviously, and it’s other places.
It’s Instagram, it’s other places, and Twitter obviously, like you just said. What can we do in this instance, and how do you ... does this tech need to be regulated? Do you have to get these people to think more strongly about their platforms and it’s not just a free-for-all? Or how do you do that? Because it does affect how kids think of themselves. It does affect our society.
I think it’s a major issue. And I think it’s something that we all have to work out. I do think there have to be more controls. I’m not sure the government should control it. I think we should talk to the companies.
Well, self-regulation doesn’t work so well.
Well, they need to try again. They need to take it more seriously and figure out how they’re going to do the self-regulation, because ...
Why haven’t they?
... the biggest threat will be the government to take over.
If the government ... well, don’t you think so?
No. Because I think the government did very well with Microsoft, I think they did well with AT&T. I think when the government does intervene correctly, it brings, it opens things up. And I think self-regulation has not worked with these people, at all. And I don’t understand why it would again. Now they really are sorry, you know what I mean?
Like, I don’t know, “so sorry for the fake news, so sorry for the intervention so far, sorry for the bots, so sorry for the …” ultimately. And now it’s sort of, it’s so hard, and that’s not really an excuse anymore. I feel like they’re media platforms, all of them, every one of them. I don’t know if you think that they are.
No, they are media platforms, all of them.
Yeah, right. And so they have the responsibility to monitor them in ways. And what they tend to do is say, “Free speech, free speech.” I’m like, sure, but some of this is fake, because some of this is damaging, some of this, you’ve got to watch it more carefully.
Right. So you know, I don’t want to end up like China, right?
Right, of course.
On the other hand, I don’t want to let the free-for-all go where it’s continuing to go.
It’s called the purge.
The purge, right. So I think there needs to be a happy medium in here. And I think that all the players have to be consulted and they have to work together. I think it’s much easier to control people when they have an input of some kind of self-control. So if they ...
What you’re saying in the book.
Like, should we trust them? How to raise successful internet people. How do we do that trick?
Well, but ... I just think about, in my classes, when they come up with the rules for how to control the class then I don’t have to monitor it. So these internet companies, if they can come up with rules that the government and that everybody agrees with that are going to work, then you don’t have to monitor so much. Because they’ve come up with the rules. And they’ve come up with how to change it.
They’re all upset, too. They don’t want to do what’s ... they don’t want to see what’s happening. And I know Facebook is the No. 1 target here. And unfortunately, I have a lot, a big following on Facebook. And I am sure ... I read this unfortunate thing about more fake medical news on Facebook than anywhere else.
Yeah, the anti-vax.
So we need to monitor and regulate this. And I don’t know the answer, but I do think discussion and bringing them all together is going to be one of the ways to start.
Well, let’s hope. You have more ... I like them personally, but I think they’ve done a terrible job in doing it, and I’d like someone ...
Well the question is, maybe we should give them a deadline. What do you think?
We should just drop the bomb. Just say, “Immunity no more, now fix it,” like, “You’ll be fined.” Ultimately, I don’t ... you don’t like fines. I do.
No, no, no. I don’t know, well, I don’t know what to do with Facebook and this whole anti-vax thing.
Could you believe that?
No, on Twitter, too.
All those people that, it’s just, it’s terrible.
It is. So let’s get back to journalism, finish up on journalism, we only have a few minutes. Where do you see the state of journalism going? Because you have all this stuff, this information on every topic, not just anti-vaxxing but whatever topic it is, and these platforms that allowed unfettered ability to communicate. Where do you see the state ... if you could finish up just very quickly talking about the state of journalism and how you think about your students going into the next era.
So first of all, Thomas Jefferson said, as you know, you can’t have a really good democracy without a good press. And so without having a really good press, we’re going to have a lot of problems with democracy. What we have to do is take a look at what is happening in the tech world that might be interfering with this. And there is a lot of interference, because it’s fake. A lot of fake stuff, people are making decisions based on that.
So, I think that one of the keys to changing the next generation is education. Because otherwise, you’re going to create all these bots, and then the other bot gets rid of this bot, and the bots start fighting with each other. But you know, human beings still have the advantage of a brain. And if they are aware ...
For now, it’s just ...
Well, we hope so. But anyway, if you can train them to think this way, they won’t be so easily fooled. Kids need to be trained. This is the age of media. This is the digital age. Where in the curriculum are they being trained for the digital age? It has to be in every single school, media training for all schools.
All right. Lastly, what’s the most important thing about teaching, anyone, your children, or ...?
Empower the kids.
Make them feel like they are in charge, and they’re ethical, and teach them all the ethical rules. You know, how to respect other people, how to trust other people, how to work together as a team. Nobody can do anything alone.
And also, all these people that are ostracized, let’s include them. Let’s not ostracize people for the way they look or for their religion or for their skin color or whatever. Everybody wants to be part of the community, everybody.
All right. And that’s a happy thing to end on. Esther, it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show. Her book is called How to Raise Successful People: — which she and her husband have done — Simple Lessons for Radical Results. This is Esther Wojcicki. Again, thanks for coming on the show.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.