June 25, 2014 at 7:55 AM ET
When your kid gets straight As, it’s cause for a celebratory dinner out. When they win a baseball game, there are loud cheers from the bleachers. But when that same kid helps an elderly neighbor with yard work, is there any kind of fanfare?
Probably not. And that may be behind a new survey that finds 80 percent of youth say their parents care more about their achievements and happiness than about whether they are being kind.
“We are hyper-focused on our own kid’s happiness,” says Rick Weissbourd, who conducted the study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I wasn’t surprised that happiness was ranked the highest, but I was surprised that achievement was ranked so high.”
To understand children's perception of what parents value, Weissbourd and his colleagues surveyed 10,000 children from 33 school districts. They asked the students to rank the importance of “caring for others,” “achieving at a high level,” or “being a happy person (feeling good most of the time).” They also rated how they believed their friends and parents perceive these values.
Students said that achievement was the most important value and thought their peers would agree. More importantly, students reported that their parents appreciated achievement much more than happiness or kindness. They were three times as likely to agree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member.”
This means kids think much less about being nice than they do about getting an A on a test, winning a swim meet, or being best camper. Yet, all this focus on accomplishment doesn’t lead to content kids.
“The achievement pressure can have a bunch of negative results,” says Weissbourd, who is co-director of the Making Caring Common project. “I’m concerned that it makes kids less happy.”
Weissbourd says living up to this standard causes stress and depression and can lead to bad behaviors, such as cheating. Studies have found that 50 percent of students admit to cheating and 75 percent say they have copied someone else’s homework, possibly in an attempt to live up to expectations.
But, teaching children about caring can enrich their lives.
“I think that the irony is that when kids are caring and really able to tune in and take responsibility for other people, they are going to have better relationships,” he says. “And those relationships are probably the most important aspect of happiness.
Carter Gaddis, a dad of two boys ages 8 and 6, who lives near Tampa Bay, Florida, says it's all about balancing reactions. He and his wife don't incentivize academic or athletic achievement, but they also don't make too big a deal out of their sons' acts of kindness or compassion.
"We say, 'Good job,' give them a hug or high five and move on. We do make our expectations clear, though. Homework is always the priority, then soccer or baseball practice," says Gaddis, who blogs at DadScribe. "I remind them every morning to 'be good, be nice, be you, be kind and have fun.' We've talked about what those things mean, and we give them quiet reminders if we see them crossing a line."
Katy Pena, a mom of three in Parma, Ohio, says she has already started acknowledging compassionate behavior in her two oldest kids Ella, 3, and Maya, 18 months, and doesn’t want her kids to be fixated on grades as they grow older.
"I'm much more concerned with if they are enjoying an activity or how it is helping them grow," Pena says. "Achievement for me is how my kids treat others and how they feel about themselves."
Pena thinks a great deal about instilling kindness in her children. Recently, when a boy in Ella’s class was acting out with aggressive behavior toward other kids, Pena encouraged her daughter to be a good friend, thereby modeling kind behavior. The friendship with Ella helped changed the boy’s behavior, says Pena.
Happiness, achievement, and kindness do not have to be mutually exclusive and Weissbourd believes that parents can easily model kindness to their children. Simply having children help clean the house, walk the dogs, and volunteer can encourage kindness.
As a way to foster caring, the Penas recently talked to Ella and Maya about donating their unused toys to children who might need them. They focus a lot on the girls being kind with each other.
“I think it’s so difficult in such a ‘me’ centered world for children to be kind-hearted to everyone regardless of what they feel someone deserves,” Pena says.