Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Moral Messages We Send Our Children

I would guess that if we asked parents what kind of adult they want their child to be when they grew up; many would mention qualities like, “successful,” “happy,” or “high-achieving.” Would many parents mention qualities such as, “caring,” “kind,” or “unselfish?” I sure many would, but according to new research, many children are not getting this last message.

A compelling new study from Harvard University researchers shows that among American students (middle and high school), the majority (80%) say they value high achievement or happiness over caring for others (20%). While this is important in itself, perhaps more interesting is the fact that the majority of these youth also report feeling that their parents value achievement or happiness over caring. This is despite numerous other research findings showing that parents cite raising caring kids as a top priority. In other words, parents say they want to raise caring kids, but the kids are not getting this message from parents’ daily actions. The authors of the study call this a rhetoric/reality gap.

If you are like me, I find this report more than a little disconcerting. The thought that we could be raising a generation of kids who so overwhelmingly value achievement and happiness over caring for others is first problematic on a moral front. Even if this aspect does not bother everyone, the authors also point out that the result of focusing so intensely on achievement and happiness is ultimately a less happy child. Several studies have found that in communities where students are pressured to perform at high levels, there are higher rates of depression and behavior problems. Similarly, when children’s achievement or happiness is prioritized over caring for others, they often fail to development relationship skills that are needed to sustain long-term relationships.

What can we, as parents, do to close this rhetoric/reality gap? The researchers give several good suggestions and many of them focus on simply setting a good example of caring for others, being respectful and fair and most importantly, demanding that our children do the same, even if it makes them unhappy. Other ideas include:

  • Ask your child’s teacher if they are kind to classmates, in addition to how they are performing academically
  • Have children practice expressing gratitude to others in their lives (waitresses, grandparents, etc.)
  •  Use news stories about others who are suffering to explain to children how other people face challenges and struggles in other settings or other countries
  •  Give children opportunities to reach out to help others in the larger community (e.g., help at a food bank, assist an elderly neighbor)

For more tips and research on this important topic see the Making Caring Common website.

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