Success

Want your kid to be like Bill Gates? Here's what the billionaire's parents didn't do—and it clearly paid off

Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates on January 1, 1990.
Doug Wilson | Getty Images

Want to raise the next Bill Gates? Join the club. Bringing up a multibillionaire tech legend is really just a pipe dream, but it goes without saying that we still want our children to be successful.

How to best lay the foundation for that success, however, remains a bit of a mystery. Psychological studies and parenting books are among the sources we mine for guidance, but we'd be remiss to ignore the wealth of hand-me-down wisdom from none other than the parents of Bill Gates.

William Gates Sr. and his late wife Mary adopted some pretty distinct parenting methods (you might even call a few of them "unconventional") that clearly helped unleash their son's greatness.

1. They didn't limit his independence

Gates as a child had a thirst for independence, and his parents granted him freedom — a lot of it — to do what he wanted. By age 13, Gates would spend chunks of time away from home, and would even take off nights to enjoy unlimited use of technology at the University of Washington, according to an interview Gates' father gave to The Wall Street Journal.

But it wasn't always that way. Young Gates was known to have a disruptive attitude. In an article for TIME, biographer Walter Isaacson wrote about a time when Gates' mother had some trouble getting her son to the dinner table. "What are you doing?" she demanded.

"I'm thinking," Gates shouted back. He then added, "Have you ever tried thinking?"

Shortly after, Gates' parents sent his son to see a psychologist. After a few consultations with a therapist, they were simply advised to give Gates more leeway. "He has very fixed ideas on some things. The dynamic of the family is that you don't cross him on those things because it's a waste of time," Gates' father wrote in his book, "Showing Up For Life."

Gates later said he benefited from the sessions. "[The psychologist] convinced me that it was unfair of me to challenge my parents, and that I really wasn't proving anything," he said in a 2016 radio interview. "By the time I was 14, I got over that, which is good because then they were very supportive."

2. They didn't allow him to give up on things he wasn't good at

Gates was skilled at many things, but his parents also pushed him to do things he wasn't good at, like swimming, soccer and football. They also encouraged him to take music lessons (Gates tried the trombone, but had very little success, according to his father).

It might seem counterintuitive to push your kids to do activities they don't excel at. (As parents, it's natural to be protective of our kids' self-esteem.) But Gates' parents saw it another way: Trying new things allowed their son to develop a growth mindset and learn the importance of failure.

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"I didn't know why at the time," Gates said in an interview with Fortune. "I thought it was kind of pointless, but it ended up exposing me to leadership opportunities and showing me that I wasn't good at a lot of things, instead of sticking to things that I was comfortable with."

3. They didn't force him to meet their expectations

Gates' parents didn't expect their son to be a billionaire, but they did expect him to finish college.

"[Mary's] expectations and mine were very ordinary expectations of people who have kids in college — that they get a degree," Gates Sr. told the Journal.

So it's not surprising how concerned they were when Gates told them he was planning to drop out of Harvard. Gates Sr. says it was a tough decision to support, but they eventually gave in.

"By then, I wasn't much of a factor in those decisions. [Gates] had his own ideas about how he wanted to achieve his goals. He seemed to know what he was doing," Gates Sr. told Forbes.

Supporting their son's decision ultimately proved to be a wise one. Shortly after dropping out, Gates moved to Seattle with his co-founder Paul Allen to focus on building Microsoft.

4. They didn't ignore the importance of community

Gates' parents were incredibly involved in philanthropy and community work, and they made it a point to ensure that their kids did, too.

"Mary was a firm believer in an idea from the 'Book of Luke': 'To whom much is given, much is expected,'" Gates Sr. said. "From the beginning, she instilled it as an important value in our family." These values played a significant role in Gates' philanthropic efforts today.

Now, some of you who are reading this might be thinking, This is a no-brainer. Of course you should teach your kids the value of helping others! But as Esther Wojcicki explains in her new book, "How to Raise Successful People," one of the biggest mistakes she sees parents making is not teaching their kids the importance of kindness.

"It's sad to say, but I've noticed more and more kids completely focused on themselves," she writes. "Everywhere there's a problem to be solved, someone or some group to support and champion. It really is a way of being in the world, and when it comes to our kids, it pays to shape this perspective as early as possible."

It's every parent's duty to show up

We can learn a lot from Gates' parents, but it all comes down to this: If you want your kids to be successful, the most important thing you can do is to show up.

As Gates' Sr. wrote in his book, "There's one lesson I've learned over the years as a father, lawyer, activist and citizen that I hope to convey in these pages. It's simply this: We are all in this life together and we need each other."

Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named a "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal.

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Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates on January 1, 1990.
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