Creative Parenting with Nina Meehan is brought to you by Bay Area Children’s Theater.
Nina Meehan: Welcome to Creative Parenting with Nina Meehan. Hi, I’m Nina Meehan, CEO and founder of Bay Area Children’s Theater, and a mom of three. Through my work with Bay Area Children’s Theater, and as an artist and educator, I have had the joy and pleasure of bringing story and imagination to hundreds of thousands of kids and families all over the world. In this podcast, I’m gonna share some of the creative parenting ideas that I have learned along the way, and that I often bring into my own family life. So let’s get ready to turn up the volume on imagination and fun, with Creative Parenting.
NM: Today, my guest is Esther Wojcicki. Esther is a leading American educator, journalist and mother. She’s a leader in blending learning and integration of technology into education. She is the founder of the Media Arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984, to one of the largest programs in the nation. She’s the author of the book, How To Raise Successful People, and co-founder of Tract, a peer to peer edutainment app.
NM: I read Esther’s book, How To Raise Successful People, and I absolutely adored it. What she is talking about around independence and trust and respect just really resonated with me as an artist, as a mother. So much of what she’s talking about are the skills that I see kids embodying when they participate in arts classes and are a part of an ensemble in a show, and you have this moment where you just see their little eyes start to shine, when they realise they are doing it themselves, they are in charge, they are driving their own train. And I thought that she just speaks so beautifully about why that’s important and why it works for parents. So enjoy Esther.
NM: Esther, thank you so much for being here to talk a little bit about parenting, creativity and kids. So let’s just jump right in there. You wrote this amazing book called How To Raise Successful People, and in it you talk about TRICK, trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness as a methodology for parenting and teaching. Can you explain a little bit about where that came from and how you came up with that wonderful acronym?
Esther Wojcicki: Well, thank you so much Nina for inviting me, and I’m delighted to be here and I’ll be happy to tell you where this came from. So it started when I was a young mother, and I was trying to do what I possibly could do, to empower my daughters, ’cause my number one goal for all three of them was to be empowered and to feel happy about what they were trying and good in their own skin. So everybody says like, “Oh, did you have this acronym back then?” No, I didn’t. I just had a goal, I wanted independent, happy kids. And I came up with this idea that if I was going to make them independent, I had to show them how to do something and then let them do it. And that’s what I did. And once they learned to do it, they felt really good about themselves, sort of walking around like little peacocks, and it could be anything from pouring your own cereal in the morning, to riding a bike, to throwing a ball. It was literally anything. And as I was doing it, I realised that by the time they were five years old, they were already pretty able to do a lot of things and very self-confident, and I just continued this. There were no books out there, I didn’t have any way to know whether I was following some educational theory or not. I didn’t know, there was no internet. Sorry, everyone. [laughter]
NM: You had to trust your gut.
EW: You had to trust your gut, and I actually say that in the first page of my book, “You had to trust your gut.”
EW: We’re treating one the same way that I wish I had been treated. That’s the way I did it. So it seemed to work for them. And then when they were a little older, I think Susan was in elementary school, and then I started in as a teacher again, and I first started out as a sub because I couldn’t work full-time because they were still too little, and then I became a full time teacher in 1984. And then I tried this methodology out on my classes, and let me tell you, it worked. It was shocking, because my program started with 20 kids in it, and it grew every year. And by 1998, I already had almost a 100 kids in this program. And the question was like, “Oh, my God, what am I gonna do with them all?”
EW: And I continued to grow. And then it turns out that this philosophy not only worked for me, ’cause first of all, I was like, “Oh, maybe they just like me or something,” my colleagues tried it out too, and it worked for them, and so today, the program has almost 800 kids in it. It’s the largest media program in the United States.
NM: I love that.
EW: And it really is because there’s nothing more attractive to a child or a teenager, than a place where they can feel good about themselves, and that’s basically what I focus on. And there’s no grade fear, because if you don’t do it, right, guess what? You just do it again. And that’s what school is for, to make mistakes, and so you just, okay, maybe you’ll make a lot of mistakes, sometimes you make a few mistakes, but I don’t care, just do it again. And that philosophy is embedded in everything, and all the kids feel, that’s a really great way to work, and so they treat each other that way also. So it’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of, well, just, you know, you just need to edit this page, or you have to think of a new idea for this. It’s not considered something bad, it’s considered part of the process.
NM: I love that. As you know, I have spent my world working with young people and families in the realm of theater and creativity, and so much of what you’re talking about resonates with what I have seen as that, giving kids the opportunity for failure as a process and a part of their growth in the creative process, and of course, building a giant media program is clearly connected to creativity, and I’m just sort of wondering, all five of those elements that you talk about in TRICK, in my head are vital to a creative process. So how has creativity specifically shown up in your career as a teacher and prior to that as a parent?
EW: Well, so first thing you have to do is you have to trust and respect yourself, and you have to also give yourself some independence and then also forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
NM: Oh, I love that. Yes.
EW: It is so important. And so I was able to forgive myself for making mistakes. If I tried a program out, and it didn’t work, well, then I said, “Well, okay, it didn’t work, and I’m just gonna have to try something else again.” Because when you are creative and when you try new things, you’re vulnerable. Because if it’s not new and it’s not… It’s not gonna be easy to do, and it’s not something you can follow somebody else doing, if it’s creative, right?
EW: Creativity is new. I mean, I tried out a lot of things, and especially I started in the beginning of this tech revolution, and I was one of the first teachers in the country using computers in my classroom. And I can tell you…
NM: Talks of creativity? [laughter]
EW: A really great movie. Hilarious. To watch that teacher making all those mistakes and those kids laughing their heads off, because I mean, I can not… I mean, I’m not sure I should tell you about all these crazy things that I did, but you’re a teacher and you’re trying new things and you have a whole group, and so usually the groups are 30 to 35 kids, and if you make a mistake, it’s a big deal ’cause all those kids are doing crazy things. But what it did is it set a model for the kids, because I would do things most of the time they worked, sometimes they didn’t work, but it unleashed their creativity ’cause they saw me recovering from this mistakes that I made, and it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t get beat myself up and I just moved on to the next thing, and that helped them be creative. They were willing then to also take a risk, and they knew that I was always understanding and accepting if they were trying and then tried something else. And that could have been from laying out a page, to working with other kids. I mean, I had students coming up with ideas for magazines, and I remember this was in the 1999, and I had approached the administration about starting a magazine, and they said, “A magazine? Well, high schools don’t do magazines. I don’t know, where you got that idea.”
EW: High schools have newsletters or newspapers, but not magazines. And so I was like, “Oh God, I don’t know what to do with these people they are always so rigid.” So, I did it anyway. [laughter] I started this magazine anyway. Honestly, one of the covers of that first year of those magazines, I just took four kids, I was like, “Hey, you guys would you do lie down on the grass, because we need to have a picture for a cover, and you guys are gonna be on the cover.” That’s how it was. And we tried everything, and it turned out it was so great, that first year, we submitted our magazine to Columbia Scholastic Press, and we won a gold crown.
EW: Oh, my God, we were all crying. And then we showed that to the administration, and they said, “Oh, well, but of course you could or can start a magazine.” [laughter] And so, that’s how it happened. I just want you to know. And now everybody has magazines, all the schools have magazines, so we’re really happy about that. [laughter]
NM: So, what I’m really hearing is that you modeled that creative process for your students and modeled that vulnerability to give them the door to open that in themselves as well. When you were parenting your daughters, was that also something that you really worked on in it sort of modeling that being willing to try and fail and get out there, and like you said, creativity by nature is something new, is that something that you were also seeing in your home prior to the magazine and teaching?
EW: Yes. That’s the short answer, but you know, I didn’t realise back then that I was modeling behavior. It was really funny, I just did it. I was very creative. At that point, I had enough of being just a straight-laced person. I wanted to be… [laughter] I wanted to enjoy life, I wanted my kids to have fun. They were always surrounded by friends. We invited people over all the time. I just wanted them to feel like they were empowered, and if they came up with these crazy ideas, okay, whatever, it was fine. Those crazy ideas. And we loved drama. And the kids loved putting on plays. I mean, that was one of their most favorite activities. We did not have at that point, a place for them to go. I think they did have a children’s theater at that time in Palo Alto, and I think it might have just been starting, I’m not sure, but we took advantage of it only one summer because during those summers we ended up traveling. My husband is a professor of physics at Stanford, and every summer there were, it seemed to be, I don’t know, those physicists, they always have conferences in the middle of the summer.
EW: And so we were always on the conferences. But I remember we went to one conference in Aspen, Colorado, and there was a summer camp there for kids and drama, and they loved it. They were used to taking a risk, so they were great at the drama. And I just wish we could have continued it more, when we got back, but there wasn’t a lot of options. Today it’s so great, there’s a lot of options and kids can do it everywhere, and I cannot stress how important that is, and I hope all parents take advantage of this with their kids, or at least, I don’t know how many summers or winters or whatever, but you should do it at least part of the time, because they learn to feel self-confident, they learn to speak in public, they learn so much about themselves, it’s a great opportunity.
NM: Alright, I’m just gonna hire you as the PR representative for all of those of us, who make theatrical opportunities for kids happen. But what I love what you’re saying is that even when there wasn’t a formal program that you made space for them to get up and just be themselves and create their own worlds. And I think that’s something that’s so valuable for parents. Right now, I often see that parents feel like they have to control the environment and make the fun happen, and what I’m hearing is, you said, “Oh, you have a crazy idea. Great, you go out there and do that.” And I think that there’s so much power for young people in making space like that.
EW: I agree, a 100%. Just because we didn’t have a lot of money, I didn’t buy a lot of toys, I bought a few toys and they used them over and over again, but I think creativity comes when you create something out of those things you have, to make a toy, or to make something fun for yourself. And my kids were always creating things out in the backyard. They had a lot of freedom, I think than the kids do today, so they would run up and down the street, there were kids on the street and they would go to someone’s house and another person’s house and the school was down the street. I think don’t over purchase, because when you do, you cut the creativity because then they’re just doing… They’re following the instructions on the board games or they’re following the instructions. I mean, today, you even buy arts and crafts things and they have instructions. They tell you how to use it exactly. And so it’s like really?
EW: I don’t know about that. So I think just let them use it. If they make a big mess, well, let them clean it up. It’s not such a problem. So yeah, that’s what I did, a lot of that. I think necessity kind of is the mother of invention. And so if they need to create and come up with a good idea, just let them do it.
NM: Yes, yes, yes. So now, recently though, you yourself have been creating. You started Tract.app, a company which is specifically focusing on creativity and learning for kids in a really unique way. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
EW: Yeah, sure, just at that same time, I had been working with a former student of mine, he wanted to help me with what I was doing, and I thought he’s the perfect CEO. So we started Tract.app and we launched in December of 2020. And what this is, it’s a program where we tried to recreate the creativity and the excitement that happens in my classroom online. And so this is learning paths that are created for kids eight years old and above. Eight years to 14, and then kids 15 to 20 or 22 are creating those learning paths. So it’s by kids, for kids. And I cannot tell you how exciting it is, for all those kids that are involved in it.
NM: I love the by kids for kids, and I’m sure you’re teaching that you had opportunities for older to mentor younger, and all of that, but that notion of you going back to what you’re saying about just give them the space and they’ll start creating, the notion that young people can be using each other to pass down creativity from one generation to the next makes me very, very excited.
EW: Then they get to do learning paths about it, they earn coins, and with those coins, they can actually do something connected to the UN sustainable goals, and the kids decided to do this themselves, this wasn’t me. I don’t wanna take any credit for this. They decided, that they would to like to donate food, a meal to a child who doesn’t have food. And that’s one thing. It’s really popular with them. And the other thing is planting trees, and the third thing that’s really popular is cleaning up the ocean. And we have foundations that are doing this, and the kids donate, or they use their coins to donate, and then we, the organisation donates in their name. And the kids love it.
NM: Oh my gosh. This is so phenomenal. I mean, it’s so phenomenal to see the kids, they are so powerful and they have so much creativity, and I just feel so strongly like we as adults, when we can get out of the way, they’re gonna change the world for us and we need it.
NM: So in that line, I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard of the term helicopter parenting, that we do have this world right now where there is this strong focus and emphasis in parenting, on sort of carving the path for your child, instead of allowing your child to carve their own path. And obviously this is the world’s biggest question, but what do you see as the key antidote to helicopter parenting that is sort of coming at us right now?
EW: So I’ll tell you, the main thing parents should want for their kids is for their kids to feel empowered and good about themselves as they grow up to be adults, because they’re gonna face a world that’s unpredictable. And they have to be creative, they have to come up with creative solutions and be able to adapt quickly, re-skill if it’s needed, do whatever it takes, and then also forgive themselves if they don’t do it right. This is the main thing you want for your child and it doesn’t matter if they go to some fancy Ivy League school and they then cannot do this.
EW: It’d be better to go to a junior college or go to any school and feel good about yourself than it is to go to a elite private school where you then feel bad about yourself, and you’re afraid to take a risk. And I think what happens with the helicopter parenting is parents think the road to success is so narrow that if they somehow don’t watch their child, they’ll fall off the road somehow, and then they’ll end up a failure. And I’m saying, “You cannot go to college with your child, and if you do go to college with your child, you have to ask yourself, how empowered is your child?” That is really awful.
EW: Okay, so I can tell you in my particular daughters’ cases, my first daughter went to school in the East, and she went to Harvard, and she applied by herself, she did everything herself. I was totally shocked she got in. And then I sent her by herself with her two suitcases on the plane. Okay, so a lot of parents would say, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’d have to drive back there, set their room up and do all that stuff.” I think it’s really important for the child, okay, if you wanna help, help a little, but they need to feel like they’re in control. And if you do that much for your child, the more you do for them, the less empowered they are, the more they expect you to do for them. It just makes sense. And so I think you want your child to be empowered. That’s my goal. That’s it. I don’t care where they go to school. I don’t care anything else. I just want them to feel good about themselves and to be empowered. Who would have ever thought we’re gonna have digital currency, tell me that? Or all this virtual reality and augmented reality and all that stuff, 10 years ago, would you have thought about that? No, never.
NM: No. Certainly not on that very narrow road that you described. I mean, I love that image. It’s not a narrow little road, it’s a wide open sea as long as we allow them to learn to swim. Oh, I think that is just such a powerful image. Esther, I just want to, first of all, I adore your book, I think you are a genius and you’re phenomenal, and I just wanna thank you for taking some time to chat with us. I’ve got three quick speed round questions. Can we go to some speed round?
EW: I love it.
NM: Amazing. Okay, here we go. If you could invent one completely crazy thing that doesn’t currently exist and would make modern parenting a little bit easier, what would it be?
EW: I think the main thing I would invent would be a group or a way for parents to support each other, so that they would not be as worried about their child as they are. I would love to help parents relax and when they relax, their kids relax. And those kids, I tell you, they’re smart. You just have to give them that opportunity and believe in them. And yes, please. Let’s have something special for parents.
NM: I love it. I’m giving you 27 snaps over here. Yes. Okay, so a group that just de-stresses, relaxes the parents. Okay. Speed round question number two. What is the first creative product, like music, book, painting, a play that you as a person or as a child or as an adult can remember feeling inspired by or connected to?
EW: So I think the first thing that I did as a child that was creative, is I played the violin. And the school back in those days, they gave us music lessons starting in second grade, and somehow I seemed to be talented enough to proceed and become part of the orchestra and then played the violin for 10 years in an orchestra. So that was probably my most creative thing, but the second one was a journal that I kept for myself. I wrote down and my handwriting was not so great, I can tell you, I was not a genius at the beginning, and some of the stuff I wrote is pretty funny for me to go back and look at what I wrote. But it was important for me, those were my special things. Playing that violin, I remember walking back and forth to school with it all the time. Why they don’t have kids doing music lesson in elementary school anymore, beyond me, I don’t know.
NM: And that’s our next podcast, we’ll go there. [laughter] Yes. So what I’m hearing is you’re creating music, and then of course, it makes sense to me that the written word would be powerful because then you went and have literally brought that to thousands and thousands of kids over the years, so I think that’s so special that that’s something that you connected with as a young person as well. And then last but not least, what is one word or like a catch phrase that you said most often to your daughters when they were growing up, or possibly to your students?
EW: It’s okay to do it again. Just revise.
NM: I’m just gonna repeat that ’cause I love it so much. I literally just felt calmer just hearing you say those words. It’s okay to do it again, just revise. Oh, Esther, this has been so phenomenal. I appreciate you so much. Thank you for giving all of the parents who are listening an opportunity to hear your wisdom and to share it with us. Any last thoughts you would like to share with anyone?
EW: I know we all have this challenge from the pandemic, and what I’d like parents to think about is all the other skills that their kids learned in this pandemic. It wasn’t a learning loss, it’s a learning gain. And we had the opportunity to learn lots of other things, grit and patience and collaboration, so don’t worry if they haven’t memorized the missions and the state capitals. They will do it eventually.
NM: As the mom of three kids, you just literally gave me the goosebumps. Yes, yes, yes. And thank you so much for your time and I really appreciate it. Have a wonderful rest of your afternoon.
EW: Thank you, thank you again for inviting me.
NM: Man, Esther is so great. Oh, I just adored talking to her. So many things are resonating with me right now, and I think what she talks about at the very end about how, as we come out of this pandemic, I hope that we as parents can see all that our children have gained and have learned. And it is, particularly as we’re thinking about the start of school year, it’s so easy to think that, “Oh, but are they behind in math, did they do enough reading, all of these things?” So how can we as parents really flip that around on its head and think about all of the different creative skills that our kids have gained. And for some of them, I’ll tell you for my kids, a lot of it is how to connect over video games. And I, as a parent, was never on board with this idea, but that’s how my boys did a lot of their socialising during shutdowns was to connect on video games and FaceTime and chat with each other while playing in the same worlds. And my five-year-old knows how to do a Zoom play date and all of these things, these are not skill sets that we are thinking, “Oh, that’s the path I want my child to take.”
NM: But going back to what Esther’s talking about, there is no one path and in fact, we’re not the ones who could even decide what that path is. So as we finish up this conversation with Esther, here’s just a couple of ideas of things that might be helpful for you to help put into practice some of her independent and trust and responsibility and resilience, and all of these pieces that she’s talking about today. So any time our kids can be the ones who are in charge of their own creative worlds, we are trusting them and we are showing independence. So put a giant pile of random supplies in a box and hand it to them. We’re talking tape and pipe cleaners and cardboard and anything else you can find around your house, paper plates. I love paper plates for those kinds of moments, and give it to them and say, “Hey, alright, this is yours. What can you create?” And let them struggle and let them figure it out, and I guarantee you that something super cool will come out of that. Another game that’s a lot about independent thinking, it’s a story game, you can just do around your table at night, which is just a one word add-on story.
NM: So you can start with, “Once upon a time there was a… ” Let them fill in the blank, and then allow them to continue the story one sentence at a time. Once upon a time there was a zebra, and what did the zebra do? Let them tell you what the zebra does and keep that story going. I guarantee you it’ll end up in something completely ridiculous, but that’s okay. That’s the whole point. Give them the power to decide where the story goes. I hope you enjoyed Esther as much as I did. Thanks so much for listening.
NM: Thanks so much for listening. I’m Nina Meehan. For more information on Bay Area Children’s Theatre, please visit our website, www.bactheatre.org. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please tell your friends, post on social media, shout from the rooftops, give us a good review. And remember, today is the day to turn up the volume on creativity in your home. Thanks.