What makes an exceptional child exceptional? How can one kid, in a sea of kids, end up so different? So successful? Why is it that some children live a purpose-filled life from a young age? And why does it seem as if so many girls are at the forefront of astonishing accomplishments these days?
Their parents must be a sort of Tiger Mom, helicoptering their way through their families’ days, right? Not quite, says Esther Wojcicki, author of “How to Raise Successful People” and mother to three women. Her daughters are Susan, the chief executive of YouTube; Anne, the co-founder and chief executive of 23andMe; and Janet, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco.
Her girls weren’t born successful go-getters, Wojcicki says. She had no plans for them before they were born, as she was focused mostly on how to hide her first pregnancy so she wouldn’t be fired as a teacher. But as she raised her girls, she knew they needed independence, not hovering.
“I wanted to make sure that they were always self-confident and felt good about themselves,” she says. “Independence was my number one goal.” She didn’t talk to them in baby talk, and she gave them a lot of responsibility because “I wanted them to feel capable,” especially in a world where a teacher could be fired for being pregnant.
What does it take to raise a strong, successful, smart and caring girl? Do parents push? Or do they stand aside? Do they provide all the resources a child needs or let them find their own way?
“You have to believe and trust your kid,” Wojcicki says. “They have been born with some kind of intelligence. You don’t have to micromanage everything.”
Here, parents of five ambitious young women reflect on the way they raise their children.
Naomi Wadler, 13
Julie Wadler, who lives in Alexandria, Va., says that from the moment she adopted 9-month-old Naomi from Ethiopia, she knew she wanted two things for her daughter: independence and happiness. And although Julie swears that her daughter always had an opinion and was “mouthy in the best of ways,” surely something about the way Julie and her partner, Monte, are raising their daughter gave her the chutzpah to lead a walkout at her elementary school and subsequently speak to a crowd of thousands about black female victims of gun violence. She was the youngest speaker at the March for Our Lives in Washington.
Naomi spoke in full sentences very early in life, and she always asked questions that “would make us stop and think,” Julie says. They tackled hard topics, embracing discomfort. The news was always on in the Wadler house, and there were few attempts to hide the truth of heavy stories, such as the killing of Trayvon Martin or the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, from Naomi and her sister. Her parents took seriously Naomi’s hard questions about what she saw on the news and “encouraged her to voice her opinion and to have the facts to back herself up.”
Julie maintains a balance of protecting her daughters, being honest with them and encouraging fearlessness. A good friend of Naomi’s is white and made a video where she was dancing, pretending to use her finger as a gun. When Naomi showed it to Julie, she told her daughter, “You can never do that. There’s never a day in your life that you can do that. God forbid there is a time it could be used against you.”
Naomi’s parents know that even a young woman as outspoken and confident as she is will go through all that comes with middle school, including self-doubt. Julie wants her daughters to know that they are enough and that perfection is not the goal, so they talk about things such as why people, particularly adolescents, care what others think. “Be true to yourself is a constant conversation in our household,” Julie says.
Wadler’s parenting keywords are presence and consistency. She works many hours as a consultant, and may not always be physically present but Naomi knows her mom is always there for her. “The consistency matters most of all. Building a relationship where you know and she knows you always have her back. Hug her, hold her, and push her.”
Marley Dias, 15
Janice Johnson Dias says she “had a very clear sense of how I wanted to raise Marley.” When Marley, the young social activist behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, was born, Janice and her husband, Scott, were making $14,000 a year between the two of them, both graduate students at Temple University. “We wanted our daughter to not have economic constraints. We wanted her to be a super-joyful kid,” she says. “We knew we had to be very intentional about how those two things happened.”
From the start, Janice and Scott worked to create an environment in which Marley not only felt loved but in which she “understood what her family context was.” So they started each day, from the time Marley was small, with this refrain: “Teach me something that you learned today.”
Marley’s parents always fostered a listening culture in their three-person family unit, who lives in West Orange, NJ. Janice and Scott believed it was important for Marley to know her voice mattered, and they wanted to learn from her. They “wanted her to see she could contribute to us,” Janice says. “She was so tiny. But we were willing to have the patience to hear her, about school, her opinion.”
Marley was reading when she was 3 and enjoyed hours of story time with her parents. (Scott, in particular, was good at injecting reading time with fun voices and other silliness.) They knew literacy and an excellent education were the keys to a good future. And they didn’t shy away from talking about tough issues with her from a young age. “It is a struggle for a lot of people, trying to tell [young] kids about racism, sexism, etc. [But] once you’re doing something to fight against those inequalities, you can become quite joyful about it,” Janice says. She encouraged this agency in Marley because she wanted her to feel like she could positively impact her world, even though she was young.
In 2010, Janice founded the GrassROOTS Community Foundation. The organization focused on middle school girls, helping them understand social justice, African American history and science. Marley created her project within that academy.
Janice asked the girls in the academy to identify something that frustrated them and about which they were passionate. Marley chose a lack of representation of black girls in children’s and young adult literature. She set a goal of collecting 1,000 books with black girl characters, and created a resource guide, becoming a well-known activist and, at age, 12, the author of the book “Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You,” a guide for kids to find their voice, read for pleasure and learn how to be activists along the way.
“We didn’t know that the world would discover Marley. That was an accident,” Janice says. But Janice was sure that when the world did discover her daughter, she had the tools, voice and confidence to thrive in the spotlight.
Now that Marley is 15, her parents are still asking her “what did you learn and what do you want to teach me,” Janice says. “She is unique, as many of these activists are. I just want to guard her, so that she feels loved, heard and understood. I just don’t want her to lose her joy.”
Haven Coleman, 13
When Nicole Coleman and her husband, Ben, were 22, “we thought ‘Let’s just have a kid. It’ll all work out later.’” So unlike many of their older parent counterparts, they didn’t have big plans for their tiny being. They simply wanted to let her be herself.
And that’s what Haven Coleman, 13, has done. Haven, who showed deep empathy and agency from a young age, is the co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike.
Haven’s work as an environmental activist involves protesting in front of businesses and government buildings in Denver, her hometown, every Friday. It “takes a toll on all the family,” Nicole admits. “We’re just trying to support her in the ways she needs.”
Haven has dyslexia, dysgraphia and “probably ADHD,” her mother says. But from a young age, she was also designated as gifted. “It’s been a puzzle to try to figure out how to raise a kid who’s exceptional in one way and behind in another. But it’s fun raising a kid who is excited about everything going on in the world.”
Nicole is a self-professed “news junkie,” and the family frequently discusses current events. “She doesn’t run away from things that are scary, she wants to fix them,” Nicole says. “This is how Haven works through it.”
When she was in third grade, Haven became obsessed with manatees and decided to try to save them. She stood outside of her home with her younger sister, holding a sign to raise awareness. They collected enough money to save one named Cheese. She was thrilled.
As a fifth-grader, she was studying deforestation in social studies, and the teacher realized how he could tap into Haven’s potential. He knew her favorite animal was the sloth. “He said ‘Did you know deforestation is hurting the sloth in the Amazon?’ She started Googling it and found out climate change was connected to deforestation and went down the rabbit hole,” Nicole said. “Then she needed to save all of us, too.”
Nicole encouraged Haven to apply for former vice president Al Gore’s Climate Reality training and she was accepted to attend. After three days of learning about climate, attendees gave presentations based on what they learned. Haven now-famously went to a town hall and spoke to her congressman, inviting him to her science class.
Nicole was not an environmentalist before Haven took this on, but she’s kind of fallen into it with her daughter. “I take her to all the strikes, so it’s been every Friday for a year,” Nicole says. It’s true that Haven is missing out on “other engagements” and school because of her activism, “and school is already a challenge,” Nicole says. “So it’s just trying to balance it and help her figure it out.”
“There are lots of times when I think of who I was at that age, and it’s another world. It’s hard to parent that,” she says. “A lot of the parenting comes from you taking the experiences you remember from when you were younger and try to work from that. But there’s no comparison, and it’s tough navigating it.”
Ann Makosinski, 22
When she was 10, Ann Makosinski became fast friends with a girl in a village she often visited in the Philippines near where her mother grew up. They stayed in touch. Then when she was in 10th grade, Ann was shocked to learn that her friend was failing school because her family couldn’t afford electricity, so she couldn’t study at night.
So Ann took what she knew about science and created a handheld flashlight that could power up with the warmth of a hand. No batteries to buy, no power grid to connect to. Her invention won her age category at the Google Science Fair in 2013. A serial inventor, she is now 22 and creating toys based on the same technology, to help kids understand renewable energy.
She credits what she calls an unusual childhood with her desire to try different things. Instead of money from the tooth fairy, she would find opera CDs under her pillow. The first “toy” she remembers getting was a box of transistors. Her mother, Sandra Makosinski, taught her to read by 3, and her father, Arthur Makosinski, helped her tinker with her creations right next to him at his work bench. “We don’t sit and watch TV, and she didn’t either,” says her father.
Her mother and her father both work at the University of Victoria; he’s in the undergraduate mechanical engineering department and she is an assistant to the dean of engineering.
“Ann was always involved in whatever project I was making,” her father says. “When I had electronic projects, she would be sitting on the bench, making her inventions.” He has a film of her explaining her inventions when she was 6 or 7. “Mostly stuff she made out of rejects from our bench or garbage. She would love to take things apart. ”
Sandra felt Ann needed some structure to her life after she started school in kindergarten, so she hung a daily schedule. “She would go to the sign and say ‘It’s four o’clock, it’s my time to read.’ She had to play piano for at least 15 minutes, then after dinner, she had a break to play. Then it was time to do homework and read. It was easy for us because we knew what to do with her and she knew what to do with herself.”
But she had a lot of free time as well, and that led to inventing. Art had brought a book from Poland, where he was born, about how to make electronic toys. “She … saw a picture of a lamp made in the Soviet Union so people in Siberia could listen to propaganda. She said ‘Dad, I want to make one of these. Can you get me thermoelectric tiles?’ So I went on eBay and got some tiles.”
And Ann made it work.
“I observed that children love getting presents, but after playing with them for one or two days, they’d abandon it,” Sandra said.
“And if they make their own, they always treasure it because they put an effort into it,” Art adds.
His advice for parents? “Always include your child in everything that you do. Give her some function in the thing that you do. Then children become very capable very fast.”
Sandra’s advice? “Let them see you do things. She saw us read, work, and then she starts to emulate us. I’m not a piano player, but I taught myself basic piano so she would see me on the keyboard and then she surpassed me,” she says.
Mahika Halepete, 17
When Deepali and Sameer Halepete speak of their daughter, Mahika, the conversation is sprinkled with head-shaking laughter and awe. Mahika “was precocious from the start,” her mother Deepali says. “I have a baby book for her. She had a vocabulary of 32 words before she was 1. She was talking in six-word sentences at one and a half. She was reading by herself before preschool,” Deepali lists these things off with a laugh. “She’s always been very curious, always ready to learn.”
And she’s always seemed to want to give back to the world, something her parents have been doing since before Mahika was born.
Deepali used to find ways of doing mini-fundraisers at home with the children. Once, she hosted a party at which Mahika’s friends painted on canvases, then they auctioned the art to raise money to buy art supplies for children at a women’s shelter near their home in San Jose. Another time, friends created a talent show. Parents paid $10, and the kids juggled, danced and played piano. The money went to Teach for India. “It was just something we did, giving kids the ownership to do good in the world using their talents,” Deepali said.
Mahika combined her precociousness with those lessons and took it quite a few steps further. She discovered the Invictus Institute, which tutors children in developing countries, when she was about 13. Deepali would wake up and hear Mahika on the phone and ask her what she was doing. “She’d say ‘I’m on the phone with a girl from Africa!’” Mahika ended up on the board of the group just two years later.
Most of what Mahika has done, her parents didn’t know about until the work was already underway.
“When they want to go and try, you have to learn to let go,” Sameer says.
“I remember she came to me one day and said ‘Can I have $120 to create a web site?’ I didn’t know what it was, but it was to create Ayana,” the nonprofit she founded to empower youth in developing countries to improve their communities, Sameer says. “She said ‘Why don’t we figure out a way to come up with solutions of their own problems and design it?’ We learned about this after it was done.”
Mahika applied for a Disney grant and used that to figure out what problems students her age in developing countries faced. One of the girls at a school in Moshi, Tanzania, said that they could increase attendance if they could build a water tap near their school where they could wash hands because they were always getting sick. Mahika found a way to fund the water station and the community built it.
Mahika eventually told her mother she was funding projects in Africa but hadn’t been there herself. Mahika pushed and pushed to go, and her mother finally agreed to take her. “She wanted to know about genocide and conflict resolution. She said ‘I have these goals, and this country will help me achieve them.’” Together, the two traveled to Rwanda and spent two weeks there.
“She pushes me, empowers me,” Deepali says.
One thing they always wanted Mahika and her sister to know: Girls need to push themselves in areas that have traditionally been dominated by boys. Sameer works in the tech industry and coaches his other daughter’s robotics team. He talks to the girls about how to survive in a male-dominated field and has noticed girls waiting as the boys rush to get their kits at competitions. “For Mahika, she doesn’t need that help,” he said.
Both parents agree on a few philosophies: “We have high expectations for our girls, but it’s about effort,” Deepali says. “Grades don’t define them. The college they go to doesn’t define them. Give them confidence that their abilities are within them. I think that’s why they truly achieve success.”