Meena and Maya Harris Inadvertently Gave Me an Hourlong TED Talk on Parenting: Here's What I Learned

When I sat down with Meena and Maya Harris to chat about motherhood, I hoped to glean insights on raising engaged kids or talking to toddlers about activism. What I got was a parenting masterclass.

By Sarah Grossbart May 09, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Meena & Maya Harris Reflect on Motherhood & Raising Children

Like many a bold 4-year-old, Meena Harris' daughter Amara feels as if the sky is the limit. Like, literally. 

Which is why she recently approached Mom and announced her future career aspirations: She is going to be an astronaut, like NASA legend Mae Jemison. Oh, and and also a president, inspired by the half dozen female candidates she watched take a stab at the country's loftiest position this past year.

And though it'd be easy to brush off such an enthusiastic declaration as the naive musings of a child who might decide the following week that she'd like to be a firefighter or, perhaps, a mermaid, Meena is not about to patronize her ambitious girl. "I'm like, 'Absolutely. Let's talk about it,'" she recalled to E! News, noting she used her daughter's admission to launch into a discussion about math and space stimulation.

As for her presidential dreams, "I try to work that in when she's disagreeing with her sister," the founder and CEO of Phenomenal explained, "and I'm like, 'If you want to be a president, you have to be able to communicate effectively and you have to be able to influence people.'"

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Guys, we're talking pro-level parenting here.

After all, four years into mothering Amara and her 3-year-old sister Leela with partner Nikolas Ajagu, 36-year-old Meena is no rookie. But one could argue her entire life has been a masterclass in bringing up engaged, thoughtful, curious women thanks to mom Maya Harris, who, as a young, single mother working her way through law school took her kindergartner to lectures and on-campus protests, letting her claim a place at the proverbial adults' table when discussing important issues.

Looking back, Maya admitted, there were moments she worried she was coming up short "because I was juggling work, juggling school, you know, wanting to be the math mom and drive on the field trip."

But more than three decades later, it's rewarding to see that not only is her daughter "a kind and caring and compassionate person with a sense of duty and responsibility," but she's using the same guidebook (one Maya lifted from her mother, breast cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan Harris) with her own young daughters. 

"I approaching parenting in the same way," Meena said of teaching her girls to use their voices and seek out their ways of making a mark on the world. "I think I'm borrowing and replicating and trying to carry on that legacy of how I was raised."

Meena Harris

Which is why when presented the opportunity to chat with the two women for E! News as part of a series highlighting extraordinary mothers, I gave one of the quickest yeses of my life. 

I was thrilled at the prospect of spending 20 minutes over Zoom asking them about the challenges Maya hurdled as she worked her way through Stanford Law School with her tiny sidekick along for the ride. Plus hearing the lessons about perseverance, work ethic and striving to create social change that Meena absorbed along the way. 

What I got was essentially an hourlong TED talk in which each woman—ping pong-ing off the other's thoughts and experiences—delivered four decades' worth of parenting wisdom and road-tested methods that I absolutely plan to lift as I attempt to raise my own opinionated, energetic, way-too-clever-for-her-own-good 2-year-old daughter. 

Don't worry, I'll share. 

Allow me to present my Mother's Day gift to all the mamas, step-mothers, honorary moms, future mothers, caregivers, grandparents, older siblings, even those who think their friends' kids are kinda cute and maybe they'd be down to babysit some day: A guide on how to bring up some truly phenomenal kids. 

The first step is easy: Simply listen. Like, really listen. 
Job one as parent, Maya shared is "to be able to equip your children to see for themselves what they can be." It's how she was raised by her scientist mother, who told her over and over that she could be whatever and whoever she wanted to be. She fully believed that if she could dream it, she could do it

"Part of what was important, both for me growing up and also as I tried to raise Meena," Maya explained, was "believing in your children, engaging your children, encouraging your children. And when you do that, they will believe in themselves." 

And so while the attorney went the public policy route, advocating for criminal justice reform as an associate at the civil rights group PolicyLink and executive director of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, she was eager to let Meena discover who she was, even from a young age. 

"When Meena was little, I tried to do everything I could to get her involved in sports," Maya admitted. Her rationale was that as an only child, it was important for Meena to learn teamwork and sharing with others. "I tried everything: Soccer, swimming, just everything. And she was not having it," Maya continued. "What she wanted to do was to draw and to paint and to do clay. What she loved to do was art." 

And so Maya quickly put away her soccer mom dreams and found a summer art camp that fostered her budding Picasso. By the time Meena landed at Stanford, a portfolio bursting with work, "she's volunteering at a mural arts project for low-income kids and continuing to pursue that passion," said Maya. "And then I look at her today and the path that she's developed for herself. She's this phenomenal, creative, trend-spotting, trendsetting entrepreneur." 

Meena Harris

By simply listening to children, "they're sometimes telling you already who they're going to be and who they want to be and what they want to do," said Maya, who hopes that her encouragement of her daughter's passion laid the groundwork for Meena's future success. "Being present and listening for those moments and supporting them in those moments can really help guide them on their path." 

Which is why Meena has no intention of brushing aside her daughter's leadership dreams. "I imagine in some cases where a kid says, 'I want to be president and an astronaut,' and an adult says, 'Oh, well, that's ambitious.' Or, 'I've never seen that before.' Like, 'Good luck, kid,'" notes the author of the aptly named children's book Ambitious Girl. But she suggests leaning into that passion. "You know, I think to my mom's point, take that seriously," Meena continued. "They're telling you who they are."

Meena Harris

Emphasize the importance of doing good.
Asked the biggest lesson she learned growing up amid a group of strong AF women, a situation she's likened to the opening scene of Wonder Woman, Meena parsed through a whole collection of teachings to pick out the one that was stressed time and again. 

"The number one thing was making an impact, using my voice, creating positive change, loving my community, doing good for my community, fighting for what's right," she shared of the importance that was placed on activism. "You know, standing up for what's right from wherever I was, however I could." 

For Meena, that originally meant following her mom into law school, three years at Harvard leading to roles at Uber, Slack and Facebook before she returned to her original love of the arts, founding her Phenomenal brand in 2017, a social justice empire focused on raising awareness about social issues through buzzy campaigns and messages concise enough to fit on v. cute tees.  

"I've now come to a point where I realize I can do that work and make change from another place—it doesn't have to be law," she noted. "So I think that was the other key piece, which is from wherever you are, however you can, you have the power and also the duty and responsibility."

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Encourage them to use their voice. 
As young as 4 years old, Meena had a front row seat to Activism 101 courtesy of her mom's "very deliberate effort to surround her, to immerse her in an environment where people were leading by example," says Maya, "where people were advocating for change." 

And not only would the elementary schooler tag along to the protests on Stanford's campus, "I invited her to participate in conversations, to think about issues, to have her own ideas," Maya noted. And by treating her as a person whose ideas are worth listening to, she "actually set an expectation that she would have opinions and she would have thoughts about things that were happening around her," Maya continued. "And that she would learn through all of that—through watching, through hearing, through engaging, that she would actually learn how to make things better." 

It's a practice Meena is repeating with her own future activists. "It's just a general approach of not babying children," the entrepreneur said of talking to her kids about what, say, a CEO does. "They're very smart. We don't underestimate them. It's very clear that you can have pretty advanced conversations with young children, so let's have them."

Even if that means bedtime sometimes comes with a side of sass. "I've got this 4-year-old who's got a lot of opinions and one specific period of time started every single sentence it seemed with, 'Welllllll…'" Meena admitted. "And I'm just like, 'How did she…?' 'Oh, I know how.'" 

Meena Harris

But while opinionated toddlers can be a lot to deal with ("There's just moments where you're trying to be serious," shared Meena, "and then they just launch into something, like, 'Daddy, that was not okay, because I was providing clarification on this and that, and you interrupted me and I was speaking and you're being a little butt"), they grow up to be inquisitive, thought-provoking, confident adults who get s--t done. 

For Meena and Nik, one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been spending more time at their San Francisco-area home with their girls, "watching them develop and be able to make good arguments sometimes," she said. "Or, you know, talking about certain issues or their observations. It's just really cool and awesome to see that it makes a difference." 


Embrace the differences. 
Raising girls that are just 20 months apart, it'd be super easy to sign them up for all the same activities, but one of the things Meena and her partner try to emphasize is "that 'You and your sister are different and that's awesome. Mommy and Daddy are different. We all have different interests.'"

Because to find their own place in the world, they'll need to follow their own path. Leela, for instance, "has a really unique, deep voice, like, a raspy voice," said Meena. And she's already showing signs she's a born performer. "The other day she was like, 'I'm on stage!'" Meena revealed. 

So she floated the idea that maybe the 3-year-old could start voice lessons, a notion that didn't so much interest Amara. "And we were like, 'That's okay. You guys don't have to do the same thing,'" recalled Meena, sharing that she suggested budding chef Amara sign up for a cooking class instead. "We just use that as an opportunity to say, 'We're all different and we all have different passions and interests and you will be supported in doing whatever you want to do. We'll find you classes. We'll nurture that. We'll take it seriously.'"

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And be honest that life isn't full of rainbows and puppies. 
Yes, it's tough to tell your bright, optimistic, loving child that achieving their dreams will likely come with more than a few setbacks and perhaps some trips to the dedicated crying bathroom at work. But it's far worse to let them run head first into a disappointment they never saw coming. 

As Meena pointed out of her girls, "We're not going to solve sexism and racism and discrimination by the time they enter the workforce."

Nor does she have the ability to wipe away rude comments, something that came into sharp focus recently when a kid on the playground told Amara that her sister "sounds like a boy," Meena revealed. After she got past her initial "And what's wrong with that?" reaction, she began to worry that Leela's unique gift might become something "she gets teased about." 


Which is why Meena makes it a point to couple each you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be discussion with the caveat that it will require hard work and enough confidence in yourself to blow past the detractors. "The way I was raised was not only with that nurture and love and support and you can do and be anything and we'll make it happen," she noted. "It came with a big dose of reality, which is you are going to enter a world that is racist and sexist and will likely experience challenges and barriers and people who are going to tell you no and make fun of your voice." 

By repeating these same conversations with her girls, her hope is that they'll own their differences and wear them proudly. For instance, with Leela, Meena said, "when somebody may make fun of her voice that then she is like, 'My voice sounds like a boy because I have a beautiful singing voice. Want to hear me sing?'"


Ditch the mom guilt. Like, all of it. 
No, the Harris woman aren't magically immune to the worries that beset all parents. The first time then-2-year-old Amara picked up a pair of AirPods and declared that she was on a conference call, "My initial reaction was like, 'Oh, s--t, what am I doing to my kids?'" Meena acknowledged. 

But then she remembered what she gleaned all those years ago watching her mom attend law school lectures and tagging along to her office. "It was very important for me to see my mom working," she noted. "And it was really formative for me in being a hard worker, in having work ethic and seeing women being leaders."

So when her eldest complained that she didn't want Mommy to have to work, "instead of saying, 'Oh, I know, work sucks,'" Meena recalled, "I was very careful in that moment to say, 'Well, you know, I actually really like working. I know why you don't like it because it's taking me away from you,' so acknowledging her feelings and where that was probably coming from, but turning it into hopefully a positive and showing her that I love working."

With business trips, Meena makes it a point to bring home not just souvenirs from her travels, but stories about what she accomplished while she was gone. As such, her 4-year-old understand that she designs clothes (like Phenomenal's Mother's Day collection) and writes books, like Ambitious Girl and her debut, Kamala and Maya's Big Idea, "and she said, 'Can I write the next one with you?'"

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More importantly, no one is expecting you to be a Pinterest mom, least of all your kids. 
"I was saying to someone who was having so much angst over making, literally, a cake from scratch, 'You know what? Birthday cupcakes that are made from a box are just as good for the 5-year-old as the ones that are made from scratch,'" Maya recalled. "It's not like you have to be perfect at everything. It's not like you have to always be able to meet your highest aspiration of what you want from yourself." 

Decades from now, when your kids are thriving adults, they're unlikely to be fixated on the time you had to work late. "You know, the one time that you missed a game or a concert, is not going to be the be-all, end-all of what your children take from you," Maya insisted. "It's going to be the time that you spent listening to them, hearing them, those are the things I think ultimately that matter."

Meena Harris

Know that the best is yet to come. 
Speaking to Maya, I truly understood why some parents begin dropping some not-so-subtle hints about grandchildren before the wedding gifts have even been put away. (Hi, Mom! Love you! Happy Mother's Day!) "I will say the only thing that rivals being Meena's mom and having been a mother and raising up a daughter, is being a grandmother," Maya raved. "It is all of the love that you feel for your own children, just like allllll the love, but without all the responsibility." 

Having gotten an up close view at how her daughter is crushing the parenting game, "You are like, 'Oh my god, I know these kids are in good hands on a daily basis, so I'm just going to love them and spoil them and cherish them,'" she continued. "It is the best thing in the world. The best thing."

She illustrated as much, describing one summer outing in which Amara was acting up and Meena "was like, 'Mom! Don't let her do it! You need to tell her she can't do that!'" Maya recalled with a laugh. "And I was like, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no, that is not Grandma's job. You tell her what she can and can't do. I am going to give her ice cream.'"

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Above all, remember: You're f--king killing it. 
As important as it is to believe in your kid, it's perhaps even more crucial that you "come to a place where you believe in yourself as a parent," stressed Maya. "Which is not always easy to do because there's so much anxiety when you're raising children and getting it right and feeling like, 'Oh man, I really can't f--k this up.' I mean, this little person is totally depending on me.'"

It can be overwhelming to think about the epic responsibility you have to raise your child into a decent adult and while it requires work and patience and listening and quality time, noted Maya, bottom line: "Your kids, with your unconditional love and support, will become who they're supposed to be." 

Truly believing that is one of those easier said than done things, but after 36 years of parenting, Maya's got the proof. She knows now that Meena was learning and absorbing even in those moments when she was simply observing Mom in action. 

Meena Harris

"If they can learn through seeing you trying to be who you're trying to become with and for them, if them watching you do that and what they take from that is, 'Well, I can do all these things, too.' That's what you want," she said. "I look at Meena and just where she is now and how she's taken all of what I'd hoped to give her and surround her with and equip her with and taken it to become her own person and find her own voice and to find her own space and how she has become this incredible entrepreneur. It is inspiring to see. It is incredible to see." 

Moreover, Maya continued, "To see her also now raising her own family with Nik, two little girls, who are already just bursting with personality and curiosity and smarts and all of that. I mean, it is just, I feel so overwhelmingly proud of you, Meena. Because you have taken, I think, everything certainly that I felt that I had to give and could give as a mom and you've made it your own, both in terms of your career and in terms of your own parenting and now in terms of what you're putting out into the world. And that is an extraordinary, beautiful, beautiful, wonderful thing. And that I think is literally the only thing that every mother could hope for in their children."

Class dismissed.