Long before the world became fascinated with Elon Musk, his mother Maye Musk worked to become a star in her own right.
Musk was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1948, one of five children, and moved with her family to Pretoria, South Africa, in 1950. At 22, she married her high school boyfriend, but after nine years in an abusive marriage the two separated leaving Musk to raise her three children as a single mother. To provide for her kids, she worked as a dietitian helping patients with medical conditions like pre-diabetes or high cholesterol and as South Africa’s first plus-size model who eventually appeared in Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
At 71, Musk reflects on her career and raising successful children, in her new book A Woman Makes a Plan: Advice for a Lifetime of Adventure, Beauty, and Success.
At thirty-one, I was a single mother with three children, and my priority was to take care of them.
My mom never felt guilty about working full time. And I never felt guilty about working full time, because I didn’t have a choice. I worked to keep a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs, and basic clothes on our backs. My children had to be responsible for themselves and to be considerate of my work, as I had converted a bedroom into my office. There is no need to feel guilty. If you don't work, and you are resentful, it won’t be fun for your kids. To have a better attitude, you’ll need to make a plan to work either part time or full time and get help in whatever form you can.
From a young age, the kids helped me with my nutrition business. My daughter Tosca would go into my office and type up letters to doctors on a word processor. She would add the doctor’s name and address and basic greetings as well as the patient’s name, and I would then fill it out with their consultation and possible outcomes. My oldest child, Elon, was very good at helping to explain the word processor functions to me, not surprisingly! And my younger son, Kimbal, was always helpful too. What can I say? I needed help.
I brought up my children like my parents brought us up when we were young; to be independent, kind, honest, considerate and polite to work hard and do good things. I didn’t treat them like babies or scold them. I never told them what to study. They just let me know what they were studying, or didn’t. I didn’t check their homework; that was their responsibility. It certainly hasn’t hurt their careers. I think my siblings and I benefited, and my children benefited from taking responsibility early on.
As they got older, they continued to take responsibility for their own futures through the decisions they made. Tosca chose her own high school. They all applied to their universities of choice and completed their scholarship and student loan applications. My kids benefited because they saw me work hard just to put a roof over our heads, put food in our stomachs, and purchase second hand clothes. They want you to know how much I struggled, as life looks so easy for me now.
When they went to university, they lived in quite poor conditions, mattress on the floor, six housemates, or a dilapidated house, but they were fine with that.
If your children aren’t used to luxuries, they survive well. You don’t need to spoil them. Once you’re sure your kids are in safe situations, let them look after themselves.
People often ask me how I have raised such successful kids. I did it by letting them follow their interests.
If they prefer to start a business and you think it’s a good idea, support them. Teach your children good manners. But let them decide what they want.
I love my kids, and I’m so proud of them for everything they have accomplished. My oldest child, Elon, is making electric cars to save the environment and launching rockets. My middle child, Kimbal, opened farm-to-table restaurants and is teaching children across the country to build fruit and vegetable gardens in underserved schools. My youngest child, Tosca, runs her own entertainment company, producing and directing romance films from bestselling novels. They all have different interests.
This reminds me of my siblings and me; we all went our own way. My parents were happy to support our different interests. In the same way, my children showed their interests at an early age, and to this day, they continue with the same interests and love them.
When they needed it, I encouraged them and helped them. When they wanted my advice, I gave it.
When Elon was young, for instance, I noticed that he read everything. I was a reader, too, but I would forget a story the moment it was done. Elon, on the other hand, remembered everything he read. He was always absorbing information. We called Elon the Encyclopedia, because he had read the Encyclopedia Britannica and Collier's Encyclopedia, and remembered everything. That’s also why we call him Genius Boy. We could ask him anything. Remember, this was before the internet. I guess now we would call him The Internet.
He got his first computer at twelve. It was 1983, and computers were very, very new. He learned to use it and wrote a computer program, BLASTAR, which was a game. I showed it to some university students who were in my modeling school. They were surprised that he knew all the coding shortcuts. These guys were in their second or third year in computer science, and they were very impressed.
So I told him to submit it to a computer magazine.
He sent BLASTAR to PC Magazine , and they sent him 500 rand (about $500 at the time). I don’t think they knew he was twelve. It was published when he was thirteen. I didn’t realize what he would go on to do.
I could not have predicted Tesla or SpaceX or Kimbal’s restaurants, the Kitchen or Big Green, or Tosca’s Passionflix. But now I see what Elon is accomplishing with technology, what Kimbal is building in the world of food, and what Tosca is doing with movies; all of it rooted in what they loved as kids.