Though Bill and Melinda Gates have devoted themselves and their personal fortune to improving children’s lives around the world, they have rarely talked publicly about their own kids. Last night, however, they opened up about what it was like to raise kids in the world’s richest family.
Speaking at the TED ideas confab in Vancouver with conference organizer Chris Anderson, the couple said that their two daughters and son would not be living a trust-funded life of leisure.
“Bringing up three children when you’re the world’s richest family seems like a social experiment without much prior art. How have you managed it in your approach?” Anderson asked the Microsoft co-founder and his wife.
Bill Gates replied that they wanted to make sure their kids received a great education. “You’ve got to make sure they have a sense of their own ability and what they’re going to go and do,” he said.
But Gates also said that, as parents, they have been very clear with their children about their philosophy that most of their money would go to the family’s charitable foundation. “We want to strike a balance so they have the freedom to do anything,” Gates said, “but not sort of a lot of money showered on them so that they can go out and do nothing.”
The topic of the Gates children arose after Melinda Gates described a trip to rural Tanzania she took with her eldest daughter, Jen. The two stayed with a family, she said, and came away with a better understanding of the barriers to education for girls. She followed several pictures of the trip with a black-and-white slide showing all three of their own children. Anderson asked why, after guarding their privacy so diligently, the couple decided to show their picture publicly.
Melinda Gates answered that the kids themselves had given permission to have their picture shown to demonstrate they too believed in their parents’ charitable campaigns against childhood mortality and for better education worldwide. That mission appears to be the legacy the couple plan to pass down to their children instead of money.
“You’ve easily got enough money despite your vast contributions to the foundation to make them all billionaires,” Anderson said of the Gates offspring. “Is that your plan for them?”
“Nope, they won’t have anything like that,” Bill Gates said. “They need to have a sense that their own work is meaningful and important.”
Gates said he and his wife came to this point of view about child-rearing before they were even married after reading an article by Warren Buffett, who had taken a similar approach to raising his own children. They came to believe that bestowing massive sums on their heirs wasn’t doing a favor for society or the kids.
The Gates parents’ attitude toward their kids and money — call it the anti-Paris Hilton approach — resonates with an attitude toward wealth that runs as a subtext through TED itself. As an event, TED manages to gather some of the world’s richest people into one room. Once there, they’re bombarded with the message that money is not for having but for doing. As the world’s richest people, the Gates family could spend lifetimes doing nothing at all. But for the TED set, at least, the only points you get are for making something happen.