Why Kids Care More About Achievement Than Helping Others

A new study suggests that parents and teachers may be sending kids the wrong message.

A new study from Harvard University reveals that 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 at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what was more important to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others.” Almost 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Only 20 percent of students identified caring for others as their top priority.

In the study, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending About Values,” the authors point to a “rhetoric/reality gap,” an incongruity between what adults tell children they should value and the messages we grown-ups actually send through our behavior. We may pay lip service to character education and empathy, but our children report hearing a very different message.

While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Study author Richard Weissbourd says he was surprised by the results. As he wrote to me in an email:

We were especially surprised and troubled to find how many youth value aspects of achievement over caring and fairness.  We were also surprised by what seems to be a clear gap between what parents say they're prioritizing and the messages that youth are picking up day to day. We need to take a hard look at the messages we're sending to children about success versus concern for others and think about how we can send different messages.

Child psychologist and author Michele Borba told me the study was “incredibly important,” a “wake up call to parents, a clear indication that we need to reprioritize our parenting agendas ASAP. The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, and a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.” Her email went on to explain,

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.

Children are not the only ones hearing parents’ implicit message. Educators, too, understand that parents value achievement and happiness over empathy and caring. When the study’s authors surveyed educators as part of their research, this is what they found:

The great majority of teachers, administrators, and school staff did not see parents as prioritizing caring in child-raising. About 80% of school adults viewed parents as prioritizing their children’s achievement above caring and a similar percentage viewed parents as prioritizing happiness over caring.  

If there is any good news to be found in this report, it is that while we may value other things above empathy, we still care about it, and want our children to value it. While only 22 percent of the students surveyed ranked caring first on their list of priorities, almost half of them students ranked caring second, and 45 percent thought their parents would rank caring second as well.  

The authors offer parents and teachers a number of guidelines. First, they suggest that parents give their children opportunities to practice being good, empathetic people. “Daily repetition—whether it’s helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, having a classroom job, or working on a project on homelessness” can give kids the skills they need to make caring a part of their day-to-day lives. The study also recommends that parents teach their children to see the world from multiple perspectives and help them find positive ways to channel negative feelings such as envy, shame, and anger.  

As the report shows, simply talking about compassion is not enough. Children are perceptive creatures, fully capable of discerning the true meanings in the blank spaces between well-intentioned words. If parents really want to let their kids know that they value caring and empathy, the authors suggest, they must make a real effort to help their children learn to care about other people—even when it’s hard, even when it does not make them happy, and yes, even when it is at odds with their personal success. 

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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