Before Michelle Obama reached kindergarten, she could read. At age 7, she skipped second grade. She would also eventually graduate from Princeton and Harvard Law. Although she married a man who’d make her the First Lady of the United States, she was already exceptional — in intelligence, drive, and purpose.
When we see people like Michelle, Oprah Winfrey, Ava Duvernay, and Kamala Harris, Black women who have defied all odds and reached extraordinary power and success, we can’t help but cheer them on, but also wonder: What transformed their God-given talents into outstanding abilities? Was it nature? Was it luck? Or could it possibly be something else?
Could that something else be parenting?
Two Princeton graduates were raised in Michelle’s working-class childhood home on the South Side of Chicago. Her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, were not rich; they were not college educated, they were not tiger or helicopter parents, nor overly strict. But they were the real secret link to Michelle and her brother Craig’s academic achievements.
Is it possible that her parents, and parents of other extraordinary people like Michelle, had unknowingly been following a universal blueprint for youthful success? The answer is a resounding yes. After interviewing the families of hundreds of extremely high-achieving young adults and some of their parents over a 15-year period, my co-author, Harvard economist Ron F. Ferguson, and I traced the roots of these individual successes to one common origin: strategic parenting.
Regardless of race or socioeconomics, “master parents” as we call these intentional caregivers like Michelle’s, are following a similar parenting recipe. How do they figure out what to do? Master parents are driven by their own backstory, a “burn” to launch and keep their children on a successful path, and they are guided by a set of practical principles, a pattern that when put together leads them to raise children with the qualities they admire: intelligence, purpose, and a strong sense of agency. We named this pattern: The Formula.
At the center of The Formula are eight roles which parents must navigate in the upbringing of their receptive and academically capable child. We found these eight parental roles to be present in nearly every case where there was an academically astute child raised to be confident and purposeful by a thoughtful and relentless parent.
The first role of The Formula is the Early Learning Partner, who entices the child, from birth to age 5, to think of learning as fun, while also creating a foundation for future adult success. Marian used flash cards to teach 4-year-old Craig to read, and when she realized that worked, she did the same for Craig’s younger sister Michelle. As an Early Learning Partner, she’d walk her preschool-age daughter to the library, where they’d sit as Michelle sounded out words on a page.
Many of the hundreds of high achievers we interviewed recalled at least one parent spending an enormous amount of time with them when they were 3 or 4.
Michelle’s father Fraser, a water-pump operator, was also an Early Learning Partner in the same vein as the parents of Albert Einstein, the great physicist. Like Einstein’s parents, Fraser intentionally used toys, and a specific type of play, to inspire curiosity but also to literally build brain power. In fact, many of the hundreds of high achievers we interviewed recalled at least one parent spending an enormous amount of time with them when they were 3 or 4, either playing Legos with them, or going to the library to read, or standing in the yard to count the stars in the night sky.
What’s fascinating is that the parents’ decision to inspire stimulating play with their prekindergarten child was not just happenstance, but something they particularly set out to do. These master parents sensed that invigorating the child during this early period, when the child’s brain is rapidly growing, would have positive lasting effects on the child’s cognitive, social, and development abilities — and they were right.
For example, MRI brain scans during a 2016 study at the University of Indiana revealed that Lego play can literally reorganize the brain and improve spatial awareness and math ability. Even reading to a child a certain way can stimulate a young mind. According to growing scientific data, more important than reading to a child was the discussion of what was just read, as it was the back and forth, the volley of conversation, that increases the child’s understanding and vocabulary.
For Michelle and Craig, the flash cards paid off, with both children experiencing a phenomenon we called “the early-lead effect,” It is when learning to read before kindergarten sets the child on a course toward high performance the moment the kindergarten teacher notices the child is light-years ahead of their peers.
The Flight Engineer, the master parent in the second role of The Formula, monitors the child from afar once the achiever starts school. Like a flight engineer on a spaceship, the master parent in this role ensures the high achiever stays on course. When things start to go off track, the flight engineer intervenes. When Michelle was only 7, for instance, she was keen enough to realize her second-grade class at Bryn Mawr Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side was out of control. Marian, her stay-at-home mother, listened to her little girl talk about the teacher who allowed the students to take over the class. Although Marian only said something like “Oh dear,” she was more than listening. In fact, the clever Flight Engineer spent a whole week lobbying the school to correct the situation. Soon, Michelle would be saying good-bye to second grade.
The result, according to Michelle, “led to me and a couple of other high-performing kids getting quietly pulled out of class, given a battery of tests, and about a week later reinstalled permanently into a bright and orderly third-grade class upstairs, governed by a smiling, no-nonsense teacher who knew her stuff.”
Economic hardship did not stop master parents we interviewed from finding resources and surrogates to aid their children’s journey
The master parent as The Fixer, the third role, is also a problem-solver but rarely works with the school. The Fixer is more like Superman or Wonder Woman, figuring out alone in the thick of the moment how to solve the problem. However, the goal is always the same, to ensure their high-achieving child has the resources and connections they need to remain on the same level as other high performers. Economic hardship did not stop master parents we interviewed from finding resources and surrogates to aid their children’s journey. One struggling mother we talked to pawned her wedding ring to ensure her daughter got the violin she needed to stay on a gifted track.
When Craig’s middle school coach abandoned the team during a game, Fraser, who attended his son’s every game, made sure all the students got home safely, but also needed to figure out how he was going to keep his basketball-loving son on a high and competitive trajectory. He quickly turned to the basketball coach of the winning team, a 19-year-old college student from the rougher side of the city, to coach Craig. Separately, when Marian and Fraser recognized their children were not going to be challenged in public high school, they searched for the right schools, whether private, boarding, or charter, so Michelle and Craig remained on an upward academic path. When Craig got accepted to Princeton, they used credit cards and loans to pay their small portion of the bill.
The Revealer, the fourth role, shows the child the world’s menu and what opportunities are available to them. The Revealer expands the child’s horizon by introducing them to mentors or “possible future selves,” and exposes them to different environments and experiences while also revealing the harsh realities of the world. Although Fraser was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was only in his thirties, he was a brilliant Revealer, one who’d take the family on long drives, showing them the neighborhoods where the rich Black folk lived, but what he really wanted was to converse with the children.
The back-and-forth conversation during dinner or automobile drives increases a child’s vocabulary, teaches them negotiation skills, and instructs them on how to feel comfortable talking to adults.
Those drives, as well as dinners at home, gave the parents time to answer all Michelle’s and Craig’s questions, ranging from Michelle’s distaste for eggs to racial inequality or sex education. When a Black police officer accused Craig of stealing his own bicycle, Marian had a chat with the officer’s boss, resulting in an apology. It was during these long conversations with the children that the parents taught Michelle and Craig that prejudice was real, even when it came from someone who looked like them. When teachers underestimated them because of their race, or a bully teased them because they were smart, their parents encouraged them to find their support system of like-minded people. Years later, when a guidance counselor told Michelle she wasn’t Princeton material, she just found a more supportive teacher who thought she was. “They never hurried us,” Michelle said of her parents. “Our talks could go on for hours.” The back-and-forth conversation during dinner or automobile drives, according to Anne Fishel, a Harvard expert on dinnertime, increases a child’s vocabulary, teaches them negotiation skills, instructs them on how to feel comfortable talking to adults while preparing them on what to do during difficult situations.
The master parent in the next role of Philosopher helps the child to find meaning in life. Fraser, Michelle’s father, was always giving the children sage advice about self-esteem, knowing yourself and being empathetic even to your enemies, if only to try to put yourself in their shoes to understand their actions. One common bit of philosophical wisdom that many of the master parents we interviewed imparted was that life was about service to others. Michelle watched her parents and members of her large extended family spend their free time volunteering at schools, with the Democratic Party, or at churches or various community centers. As a result, the Ivy League graduate chose early jobs that were mission oriented rather than high paying.
The sixth role is The Model, the parent who shows rather than tells the child what to do. The Model is the adult who conducts themselves in a way that the child can emulate. Fraser never told his children that it was important to be punctual, but he was never late, a lesson both Michelle and her brother follow to this day.
The Negotiator is the master parent who teaches the child to speak truth to power, to self-advocate, to defend oneself, and to question adults, but to do it respectfully. The Robinsons rarely lectured the kids, never spoke baby talk and always treated their children like adults. Michelle was never relegated to the children’s table or rebuked for being in grown folks’ conversation. In fact, Marian would strategically speak less, so her attention was on what Michelle was saying. That meant, even at a very early age, Michelle expected adults to take her seriously, which sometimes got her into trouble.
The Robinson family lived on the second floor of a bungalow owned by Michelle’s great-aunt Robbie, who lived with her husband on the first floor. Robbie was prim and proper but was also a tough-as-nails piano teacher. It was 4-year-old Michelle, not her parents, who decided it was time to take piano lessons from Robbie. When the elder woman chewed out little Michelle for speeding through her piano lessons without permission, Michelle pushed back, questioning why Aunt Robbie was moving at a snail’s pace. The debates between them never stopped, and Michelle’s mother never intervened. According to Michelle, Marian was secretly proud that her little girl was standing up for herself.
The final role of The Formula is the GPS Navigational Voice. It is the parents’ pearls of wisdom that the adult achiever carries with them in their head and heart. The saying of Marian’s that remained in Michelle’s head was, “I wasn’t raising children. I was raising adults.”
“She always talked to us like we had sense,” Michelle often said. “She would ask you to explain yourself.” When Michelle and her family moved to the White House, she found herself repeating her mother’s mantras, following in her master parents’ footsteps, making sure she and President Barack Obama never missed a school meeting and talking to their daughters as if they were grownups. The Obamas were master parents in the White House, parental strategists who regardless of what they had to do, their children’s growth was first of mind.