Want to Raise Successful Kids? Elon Musk’s Mom Says This 1 Habit Matters Most (Most Parents Do the Opposite)

This is a story about Elon Musk and his mom, and it contains the kinds of insights that inspired my free e-books How to Raise Successful Kids and Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans, which you can download here.

Musk turned 50 years old this week, and his mother, Maye Musk, marked the occasion in a very Muskian way: by tweeting a photo of herself holding Musk as a newborn in South Africa in 1971.

It turns out, Elon Musk was cute as a baby — and if you look closely, extremely recognizable.

Now, as it happens, Maye Musk wrote a book last year in which she explained, among other things, the parenting philosophy she says helped Elon Musk to become the Elon Musk we know today.

There’s one thing in particular she says she did that paid off. In short: If parents have to make a choice between guiding their children every step of the way and helping them find the best route, or simply standing back, telling them they’re on their own, and letting them walk whichever path they think suits them, then Maye Musk clearly chose the latter. Consider her specific advice, which I wrote about when her book first came out:

Put your kids to work at an early age 

Maye Musk says this came about because of necessity: She was “a single mother of three  …  working full time, because I didn’t have a choice.”

Treat them like adults

Elon Musk had to grow up very fast, as we’ll see below. Maye Musk clearly views that as a benefit, not a problem.

Let them choose their passions and follow their interests

“I never told them what to study. I didn’t check their homework; that was their responsibility,” Maye Musk wrote.

Don’t get them used to luxuries

“When they went to college, they lived in quite poor conditions,” she wrote: “mattress on the floor, six roommates or a dilapidated house. But they were fine with it. If your children aren’t used to luxuries, they survive well.”

Make them responsible for their own destinies

“So many parents get easily stressed about their kids,” she wrote. “My advice? Let your kids … be responsible for their future. … Teach your children good manners. But let them decide what they want.” 

I think these are all things that many parents would say they aspire to practice while raising their kids, but often don’t do so in reality. 

It’s one thing to say you’ll put it on them to motivate themselves to study or choose the subjects they’re most interested in; it’s another entirely to stand back and let them fail when they’re not performing well enough.

But there’s a counterpoint to what Maye Musk says — three counterpoints, actually.

  • First, her style does fly in the face of some of the most compelling parenting advice I’ve seen: for example, the idea that a “run to their side” approach is better than the “let it bleed” style of parenting that was a popular theory for a while in the early 2010s.
  • Second, there’s the fact that Elon Musk had a very tempestuous and complicated childhood. After his parents Maye Musk and Errol Musk divorced (Elon Musk was about 9 years old), he chose to live for years with his father. He later regretted this decision and called his father “a terrible human being.”
  • Finally, there’s the whole question of correlation versus causation: Yes, Maye Musk’s philosophy is interesting in light of what her son wound up becoming, but we really don’t know for sure whether he achieved success because of her parenting style or in spite of it.

Be that as it may, Elon Musk has a reported net worth of about $166 billion, and he’s the CEO of multiple consequential companies; it’s hard to say with a straight face that he’s not successful.

And now that he’s reached the half-century mark, it brings to mind the story of what Elon Musk and his brother, Kimbal Musk, did for their mother on her 50th birthday, in 1998.

“They gave me a little toy house and a little toy car the size of a matchbox and said, ‘One day we’ll buy you the real thing,'” she said in 2015. The following year, the Musk brothers sold their first company, Zip2, for $307 million, and made good on the promise. 

Don’t forget the free e-books How to Raise Successful Kids and Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.