How do you Raise Successful People?
“Just Relax” says Esther Wojcicki

By Jody Passanisi

First: Back away from that helicopter

Much of Esther Wojcicki’s talk at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School was a direct rebuttal to the anxiety of parenting in the modern age. While the book she was here to promote is called How to Raise Successful People, the focus was less on the eventual success of the aforementioned people who are being raised, and more on the roadblocks that impede our ability to give kids what they need to feel successful in their own right.

Parents and educators alike in the audience nod their heads as she speaks. We all feel these things to be true, but in practice it can be hard. She recognizes the intense emotions that drive helicopter and snowplow parenting: real fear and stress that instead of accomplishing what it’s trying to do, instead takes control, empowerment, and self-efficacy away from children.

Wojcicki’s philosophy, concisely encapsulated by the acronym TRICK (trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness) – is easy to remember, and like her talk, easy to agree with, but harder for many of us to do with our actual real kids.

Wojcicki, one of the founding board members of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, who has sent five of her grandchildren to the school, shared ways that our school is providing space, time, and trust for students to stretch their independence and preparing them for an unknown future.

Skills for now, Skills for the future

We need people who have skills that computers could never have. Social emotional skills: empathy, compassion, kindness, respect, creativity. This is what they need. This is what they get here at Hausner.” -Wojcicki

At Hausner, we have a strong focus on social emotional learning in both our lower and middle schools, realizing that the piece about collaboration and kindness can only be achieved through opportunities to practice, through reflection, and through self-regulation. These skills will prepare students for a world of innovation, thought, flexibility, and collaboration – not, as Wojcicki mentions, for obedience and standardization – as was the focus of education up until very recently.

Relationships. Relationships. Relationships

I think we all know the three most important things in real estate. So the three most important things in education? Relationships. Relationships. And relationships. And that’s what’s stressed here at Hausner. And that is so important. This is a community.” -Wojcicki

At Hausner, students call their teachers by their first names. We get to know them. We hear them, we see them. Being heard and seen is one of the most powerful things you can do for a student. It says, “I trust you. I believe in you. I think about you.” Our community is first and foremost.

A Sense of Larger Purpose

“‘People have to have a purpose. It’s the golden ticket that money can’t buy.’ And this is one thing that you get here at Hausner. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. It’s really important.” -Wojcicki quoting and commenting on a quote by Todd Rose.

The third point which Wojcicki connected to Hausner was the need for people to feel connected to a sense of a larger purpose in their lives. From the youngest kindergarteners who collect socks for the homeless to the eighth grade students who tutor younger students and who visit and listen to the stories of their elders at a local senior home, we provide a mandate for students to actively work in the world for good. Our seventh grade students participate in a project called Avodah La’Olam, the work of the world – a philanthropy project in which they delve deeply into the causes of injustice in the world, and work to find a place they can have the most impact – for themselves and for the world.

No Roadblocks to Creativity

We are all born curious. Then the fear of failure scares it out of us. Curiosity is educated out of us … It’s great here [at Hausner] that they do a lot of creative projects.” -Wojcicki

As Wojcicki states: fear prevents creation. No wonder then that both adults’ fears about students success and students’ fears about their own success can impede their abilities to do exactly what they need to do to expand their worlds and reach out for the unexpected. The process of learning needs to be joyful and engaging where students can work on creative projects. It can’t be simply a task borne out of fear of failure. At Hausner, our students love to learn, we work with them to relish challenges, and to take opportunities to be creative in their learning. Our students are stronger than we think. We can trust them to run with their ideas.

So Relax Already!

Our fear centers around the idea that we might make a mistake in this sacred work of raising up humans to be the next generation. We need to trust ourselves – as well as our children – and allow ourselves to let go of our expectations and prejudices about what success must look like, and what school must look like to create this success. The models of the road to success that we’ve created are based on the systems we saw ourselves, or experiences ourselves as we were being raised up. This is a whole new ballgame. As the guides in this venture, our own anxiety will significantly lessen once our model and the reality of where our children are – are in better alignment. In other words, we need to be more flexible, we need to embrace the non-linear nature of learning.

As Wojcicki said in her talk: when you’re in something it’s hard to see how it’s impacting you. You realize its impact later. Nothing has spoken to me more about the nature of what we do as educators that this line. We need to trust our kids, we need to trust the innate thirst for knowledge and meaning, we need to provide space for those things. We need to let go – there may be missteps. There may be tragedy. But our control of our students’ every move will not have prevented it, but may prevent them from feeling deeply, that they have a true place in the world.

In other words: we need to relax.

Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.