Kind Kids Or A Clean House?

November 15, 2014 in Inside SWS

Twenty-seven years ago I was sitting in the waiting room of my obstetrician’s office, perusing the standard selection magazines on the table beside me. I came across a cartoon depicting a somber group gathered around a gravesite, saying their goodbyes to the departed. One woman was turned to another whispering and the caption read, “She sure kept a clean house.” My initial reaction was to chuckle (I have been known to make the bed before a child is completely out of it) but then I paused to think more about this. As I stood (sat, actually) on the cusp of parenthood, what did I want to be remembered for? What would – what do – I want my families and friends to say about me at the end of my life? Perhaps it was hormones, but with great clarity I thought, “I want to be a good mom and raise nice kids.”

The aspiration to bring kind and compassionate children into the world is not unique to me, and I am guessing is widely held in our community and in the larger world. Yet according to a recent study from Harvard University, “the message parents mean to send children about the value of empathy is being drowned out by the message we actually send: that we value achievement and happiness above all else.” The Making Caring Common project surveyed 10,000 middle school and high school students about what was more important to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others.” Only 20% identified caring for others as their top priority. (The Executive Summary of the report is available here.)

The authors of the study identify the disconnect between what we (parents and educators) say and what we do – we may claim to value compassion and empathy as goals of education, but our children get a very different message. It was startling to read that while 96% of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80% of students reported that their parents are “more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Equally alarming, the same number reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring.

The real irony here is that children who are kind and have empathy for others are happier and more successful. According to child psychologist and author Michele Borba, “Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity and core to everything that makes a society civilized.”

Wow. Reading that, I have to reflect honestly on my own parenting, and whether I am walking my talk with my children. Does our conversation at the dinner table involve sharing ways in which we demonstrated compassion during the course of the day, or do we talk about the results of an exam or progress on an assignment at school? Is our free time as a family spent engaged in helping others, or pursuing our own happiness? Do I model empathy and caring for my children in my actions as well as my words? And how do I define “success,” and thus help them develop their own understanding of this societal mantra?

These are big issues for parents and for schools. Simply talking about compassion is not enough. Our children are smart – they see the incongruity between well-intentioned words and actual behaviors. Our task is to really take up the work of teaching our children to care about other people and to express this caring through actions. Make the time to engage in conversations and activities that expand our circles of concern and kindness – and let the house get messy.


P.S.  Speaking of kindness toward others – please see the page about our seniors’ Civic Activism projects here.

Published in the Connection from11/14/14