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Success vs. Happiness vs. Kindness….Do our Children know the difference?

For today’s kids, achievement and happiness trumps caring for others

By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor


girls hugging

Do you want your children to grow up to be kind and caring people?

Do they know it?

A new study from Harvard University has uncovered a vast disconnect between the message parents think they are sending their children about the importance of caring for others and the messages their  kids are receiving about prioritizing achievement and their own happiness over caring for others.

The survey, conducted through the Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, asked a broad range of more than 10,000 middle and high school students from 33 school districts across the country what they thought was more important: “caring for others,” “achieving at a high level,” or “being a happy person (feeling good most of the time).” 

Only 20 percent of the students said that caring for others was the most essential. That left 80 percent of kids who ranked achievement and their personal happiness as top priorities.

In a moment when the country is engaged in a knockdown about education standards, the middle class is disappearing, and there’s a steady drumbeat about our children’s lack of global competitiveness, this news shouldn’t surprise us. There’s a lot of anxiety about our children’s ability to pay the bills – and academic achievement is perhaps the one avenue most parents can imagine their children treading to avoid the hazards of a treacherous economic future.

But the finding that should make parents sit up and pay close attention is what the study calls the “rhetoric/reality gap” between what parents believe they’re communicating to their kids and what kids are hearing. The report, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending about Values,” states that in a 2012 study, nearly all parents – 96 percent to be precise – say developing moral 
character in kids is “very important, if not essential” and they highly valued their children being “honest, loving, and reliable.”

The study is part of a multifaceted effort to raise awareness about the importance of cultivating social emotional skills and ethics in our children. GreatSchools recently participated in a workshop (where this report was presented by its author) about how to galvanize a cultural shift in the  messages parents send this generation of children.

In the study, Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd and his co-authors found that when the students were asked to imagine how their parents and peers rank achievement, happiness, and caring, two-thirds answered that both their parents and peers would rank achievement above caring for others.

Students were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” (The majority – 80 percent – of teachers, administrators, and school staff agreed with the kids, saying that they saw parents favoring achievement and happiness over caring for other people, too.) And the older the child, the less they focus on caring.

So what’s going on? According to the study, it appears our nation is suffering from a caring crisis, which – despite parents’ best efforts to remind their children to play fair and be nice – is also telling our children to look out for number one to get the A, the top-ranking college, and the six-figure job.

The news isn’t all bad. But if our goal really is to raise kind, ethical kids, the authors say it will take a shift in how we parent. Adults need to “walk the talk,” since young people, with their “razor sharp alertness to hypocrisy,” notice when their parents say one thing while prioritizing something else. The authors encourage parents to gut-check their messages around happiness and achievement in comparison to their messages around caring and fairness.

“Do we regularly tell our children, for example, ‘the most important thing is that you’re happy,’ or do we say that ‘the most important thing is that you act with integrity and are kind’? Do we insist that our children are not rude to us or never treat other people offhandedly? Do we insist that our children do the right thing even if it doesn’t make them happy or successful? Do we remind our children of their obligations to their communities, for example their classroom and schools, their teams and school choirs, and their neighborhoods?”

While parents and educators might worry that we’ll have to sacrifice achievement to emphasize caring, research suggests the opposite. In fact, good kids come out ahead, says Vicki Zakrzewski, a social emotional expert and the education director of the Greater Good Institute in Berkeley, California. 

“Children who are taught social-emotional skills rise in academic achievement,” says Zakrzewski, who notes that research has found that children who link their passions to something greater than themselves do better in school and in their careers years later. “Success and achievement doesn’t mean you forego those around you. You can extend care and compassion to others and be successful.”

Follow @LeslieMCrawford