A new study from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education has the potential to serve as a wake-up call for parents everywhere. The study reveals a gap between the messages parents intend to send their children about empathy and caring and the messages that children actually hear. Parents might think that they are promoting prosocial behavior above personal success, but kids tell a much different story.
The Making Caring Common Project surveyed 10,000 students from 33 schools across the country and asked them to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, being a happy person (defined as "feeling good most of the time") or caring for others. Almost 80 percent of the youth surveyed picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice. When students were asked how they view the priorities of their parents with regard to these areas of child raising, only 19 percent of the students viewed "caring" as their parents' top priority. Bottom line: Students feel that parents place a higher value on achievement/success and individual happiness than kind and empathic character.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that success and achievement don't always guarantee personal happiness, and research supports the fact that altruism and compassion actually contribute to greater well-being and increased longevity. Long story short: It feels good to be good. That's a message our kids need to hear.
What does this information really mean for parents? It means we need to think long and hard about both the values we instill in our children and the manner in which we instill those values. We can't just gloss over the importance of kindness and compassion and expect our children to internalize the importance of these character traits. We need to guide them, over and over again, and we need to lead by example.
Before you get caught up in thinking that perhaps happiness isn't actually all that important, consider this: Happiness isn't something students achieve through test scores, report cards, winning season, and college acceptance letters. Happiness is the result of positive actions, even in the face of adversity. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."
So how do we raise kind, caring and happy kids? We start by changing the way we think about happiness in general...
Redefine happiness: It can be difficult to watch kids struggle. It is the instinct of the parent to want to protect a child from adversity as much as possible. But lack of adversity doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. Enduring struggles along the way doesn't make your child less happy. In fact, working through difficult situations gives your child the opportunity to hone problem solving and coping skills. Triumph over adversity can be a very positive experience, as can learning new skills to apply to the next difficult scenario.
It's time to teach children that happiness isn't about stuff, grades or trophies on the shelf. If we redefine happiness for our children and teach them that positive actions increase positive emotions, we send a message that prosocial behavior is important. When we do for others, we help increase happiness for other people while experiencing positive emotions as a result.
Dial down the competition: I can't say that I'm surprised to learn that youth believe parents place a high priority on achievement. Spend a few minutes at a youth athletic event and you will quickly learn that the competition on the sidelines generally overpowers the competition on the playing field. Parents, as it turns out, want those trophies just as much as children do (sometimes even more).
Youth sports are a great outlet for kids. Team sports provide exercise, passion and can even increase self-esteem. But when winning is the only thing, kids are raised to believe that they need to squash any roadblocks to the win. At times, they even turn on their own teammates.
It's time to step back from the intense competition on the field and provide kids with the opportunity to reap the benefits of sports without the overwhelming pressure to achieve. You can't win happiness, but you can encourage kids to work together and help each other out on the field.
Teach altruism: Kindness is a very powerful thing. When kids learn to help others, they have a greater understanding of the world around them. They also internalize an important message: Actions really do speak louder than words. They can change the world with their own two hands.
Encourage daily acts of kindness and compassion, both big and small. Help a neighbor with the trash cans. Compliment a friend. Hold the door for a stranger. Volunteer as a family several times a year. Donate food to your local food pantry. Raise money for children in need. Stop talking and start taking action.
Focus on caring: The Harvard research found that messages about success seem to crowd out messages about caring, even though parents genuinely want to raise empathic children.
It's no big secret that kids are on the fast track to success when it comes to education these days, and sometimes the pressure to succeed (be it internal or external in nature) becomes the primary focus. This leaves little room for working on character. Character begins at home.
It's essential to teach kids the importance of caring for others. Bullying and cyberbullying make headlines often, but too often the stories behind the headlines focus on placing blame for the behavior. The truth is that we need to prioritize raising kind and compassionate kids, both at home and in the classroom. When kids learn to care for others, they build each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Teach coping skills: Kids will struggle at times. Life is hard and obstacles appear when you least expect them. It's time to stop trying to protect kids from adversity at all costs and teach them the coping skills they need to overcome adversity instead.
Kids aren't born into this world with a toolbox of coping skills. Coping skills are learned and, more often than not, require a lot of practice. Teach your kids how to cope with the hard days and problem solve to work through difficult situations. You just might find that your kind and caring kids turn around and help someone else facing a similar struggle.
It takes a village: People love to reference the old saying that it takes a village to raise a baby. I tend to agree. When people help each other out, the world is a better place. When parents receive help and support from other parents, family members, friends and members of the community, parenting feels less overwhelming and exhausting.
You know who else lives in villages? Kids.
Kids need to learn that they are part of the village. Their positive actions can have a positive impact on the greater good. When kids learn to see themselves as important members of their various communities, they are empowered to lead with kindness and care for others.
Walk the walk: I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: You have to be the person you want your child to become. It's one thing to say that kindness and empathy are important to you, but if you don't practice kindness and empathy on a daily basis, your kids are hearing an entirely different message.
Kids mirror their parents and other caregivers. It starts when they're toddlers and it continues clear through early adulthood. You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.