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How NOT to raise a little jerk: Do this with your kids

Focusing on achievement instead of character might keep us from meeting our parenting goals, says TODAY Tastemaker Dr. Deborah Gilboa.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

How do we avoid raising a generation of jerks?

That’s a question Dr. Deborah Gilboa, TODAY Parents child development expert and pediatrician, addressed in her Tedx talk, “The Expectation Gap,” at Carnegie Mellon University in March.

"What do household chores tell us about where society is headed? Chores are the canary in the coal mine of kids' character," Gilboa states as she opened her talk, revealing that she discovered while talking to a group of affluent Silicon Valley parents that though most of them had chores — laundry, cooking, cleaning —in their youth, only four of those 1500 parents in her audience give their children chores now.

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Parents, she said, feel their children have too many burdens between school, sports, and clubs, and jobs. In essence, their kids don’t take out the garbage; instead, they are expected to excel academically and extracurricularly.

But by focusing on achievement instead of character-building activities and expectations like chores, Gilboa believes we might be letting our kids fall through the cracks when it comes to morals and manners. "As our expectations are rising on their achievements, our expectations are simultaneously dropping on the character of the child in front of us. Adults are willing to tolerate, excuse, even promote behaviors that damage these people that we love," she says in the talk.

"I am a family doctor, and a few parents of kids in my practice say that they not only understand, they pay for their kids' alcohol and drug use to help them manage the stress of their enormous workload."

Gilboa relayed at TedX a story about one of her own four sons who had never put a lot of effort into the science fair at school. Finally, at the age of 12, he did: he worked hard, did his research, and took third place in the school science fair. He even advanced to the regional competition.

Deborah Gilboa
Deborah Gilboa's son worked hard on his science fair project...but is that enough?Courtesy of Deborah Gilboa

Gilboa and her husband were very proud of their son for stepping up his effort and winning…until they realized he also participated in a mean joke that made fun of another student in his class with a less-successful project.

According to Gilboa, her son was baffled when his parents showed disappointment in him that day. He had won at the science fair. Wasn’t that what they wanted? He didn’t understand they cared more about his unkindness toward his fellow student.

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“When we stressed to our son the importance of doing a great job on his science fair project, he took that to be our highest priority,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “Through no fault of his — or ours, really — he subconsciously decided that his success was what, and all, we valued.”

Gilboa and her husband realized they had to take the emphasis off the achievement and put it instead on his conduct. “Being a jerk to some other kid doesn't diminish his science fair award, it diminishes him as a person,” said Gilboa, “And it's him as a person that we need to raise right.”

Deborah Gilboa
Dr. Deborah Gilboa and her son.Courtesy of Deborah Gilboa

In her talk, Gilboa concludes that a generation that doesn’t take out the garbage because they are "too busy" with schedules loaded with sports, extracurriculars, and honors classes might not understand that who they are is more important than what they achieve, and that morals are necessary to help solve the problems this next generation will face and carry the burden of solving. "The solutions to [our] issues don't depend on great SAT scores. They depend on problem solvers of good character — people who see something wrong and ask, 'What can I do about that?'" Gilboa says in the talk.

Noting that parents spend a lot of time worrying about their children's happiness, Gilboa notes that our children's happiness is not actually our responsibility; their character is. But the two, she says, go together. “When we focus on our kids' character, they will accomplish meaningful things and are very likely to find and make their own happiness. But the opposite is not true. Because when we focus on our kids' achievements and immediate happiness, it's easy for them to turn out to be jerks, never knowing that this was not our goal,” she said.