Which do you think American teens value more, achievement or caring for others? Caring ranks a distant third behind academic achievement and personal happiness, according to a recent survey of 10,000 middle and high school students from 33 schools across the nation that was conducted by Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers. Nearly 80 percent of young people picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while about 20 percent selected caring for others.
These findings were "distressing" to Rick Weissbourd, a Harvard lecturer who conducted the survey released in June as part of the Making Caring Common Project. The year-old project, which is part of Harvard's education school, aims to help parents and teachers inspire children to be caring, respectful, and responsible human beings. Its first mission, Weissbourd said, was to get a sense of how bad off kids are when it comes to prioritizing kind and compassionate interactions with others.
How willing are they to help around the house or approach a child with disabilities sitting alone on the playground? On the flip side, do they fudge on their community service requirement or copy their friend's homework?
"Kids do care, but this caring is subordinate to achievement and personal happiness," Weissbourd said. "It gets buried by the overwhelming pressure kids feel to succeed."
Much of that pressure, teens reported, comes from their parents and teachers who praise them for educational successes and make it clear that schoolwork needs to be a number one priority.
I asked my 16-year-old son whether he thought I emphasized his academic accomplishments more than his caring deeds, like helping his grandmother get up the stairs. "Is this a trick question?" he responded before saying that obviously I cared more about how he did in school, though he knew I also wanted him to be kind to others.
After confronting the possibility that I may be lacking in my parenting skills, I ask Weissbourd to outline why he thinks it's so important for kids to rank being caring as number one.
"If kids are caring, they can tune into other people and will have better relationships their whole lives," he said. "They'll be better parents, friends, and spouses and will likely be happier due to these stronger relationships."
Having such social skills will also make them better collaborators at work, he added, and help them attain higher levels of achievement — hence achievement and caring aren't mutually exclusive.
High schools throughout the country have increasingly recognized the importance of getting students to perform community service and often institute mandatory hours as a requirement for graduation.
My kids have to do 36 hours of service each year for their private high school, but I worry that they see the requirement almost akin to a homework assignment rather than something designed to help them build compassion or empathy for others.
Weissbourd tells me not to worry too much about whether their motivation stems from a school requirement. "Community service, regardless of motivation, tends to be helpful to kids when they have a range of options to choose from and time to reflect on it," he said.
But he is concerned about the trend toward a kind of "community service olympics" where students compete to get high-profile opportunities to put on college applications. "One girl told us that her parents started a school in Botswana" that the girl, herself, had no role in developing, Weissbourd said. "In too many cases, community service has lost its meaning."
He's planning to meet this fall with college admissions officers in an attempt to reframe community service to emphasize community improvement projects that bring students from various ethnicities and socioeconomic groups together to implement positive changes — rather than traditional models where richer teens helps those less fortunate than themselves.
Parents can certainly play a strong role in modeling caring for their kids and not just by volunteering at a local food kitchen or homeless shelter.
"It's about showing that you're engaged and giving back to people around you," Weissbourd said, "being thoughtful and kind in interactions with a bus driver or server in a restaurant." Sometimes we don't even realize when we're not modeling good behavior, which is why Weissbourd recommends asking a spouse or close friend for feedback.
“Kids are razor sharp to hypocrisy, especially teenagers,” he added, and it’s good for parents to know if what they’re modeling runs counter to the kindness they preach.