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The Children We Mean to Raise

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We recently released a report entitled "The Children We Mean to Raise" which suggests that a large majority of youth value personal success (achievement and happiness) over caring for others. We asked youth to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time) or caring for others. Almost 80% of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20% selected caring for others. A root of this troubling finding may be the messages that parents are unintentionally sending. According to various surveys, parents say they want children to be caring and respectful and value their children being caring more than their achievements. But according to the youth we surveyed, their parents appear to put achievement above caring.

The problem, based on our observations of and conversations with parents, seems to be that the volume and power of messages that prioritize achievement and happiness are drowning out whatever messages we send about the importance of caring and responsibility for others.

The good news about all this is that our findings seem to have struck a chord with a wide variety of audiences and people are talking about our findings. But while awareness is good, we need to act.

So what should we do? It starts with "me" and ends with "we."

As we point out in our report, it starts with adults' behavior.

Here's what we can do:

1. Make caring for others a priority. While it's clearly important for parents to promote children's achievement and happiness, it's also important for parents to help children learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it's passing the ball to a teammate, helping a friend with homework or deciding to stand up for a friend who is being bullied. One simple way to do this is, instead of saying "the most important thing is that you're happy," saying the "most important thing is that you're kind and happy."

2. Provide ongoing opportunities for children and youth to practice caring and helpfulness, sometimes with guidance from adults. Children are not simply born good or bad and we should never give up on them. A good person is something one can always become, and throughout life we can develop our ethical capacities. Learning to be caring and to lead an ethical life is like learning to play an instrument or hone a craft. Daily repetition -- whether it's helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, having a classroom job, or working on a project to reduce homelessness -- and increasing challenges make caring second nature and develop and hone children's caregiving capacities. With guidance from adults and with practice, children can also develop the skills and courage to know when and how to intervene in situations when they and others are imperiled. They can become effective upstanders or first responders.

3. Children and youth need to learn to zoom in, listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, taking in the big picture and considering multiple perspectives. It is by zooming out and taking multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who are too often invisible (such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn't speak their language or the school custodian) that young people expand their circle of concern and become able to consider the justice of their communities and society.

4. Be a strong moral role model. Being a role model doesn't mean that we need to be perfect or have all the answers. It means grappling with our flaws, acknowledging our mistakes, listening to our children and students and connecting our values to their ways of understanding the world. It means that we, too, need to continually practice and zoom in and out, cultivating our capacities for care, widening our circles of concern and deepening our understanding of fairness and justice.

That's the "me" part.

The "we" part comes next, when we realize that as much as we do as individuals, we need to work together to change the messages our children hear about the definition of success and what it means to be an ethical member of a community.

To begin, we'll have to stop passing the buck. While Americans worry a great deal about children's moral state, no one seems to think that they're part of the problem. Parents often blame other parents. Our research suggests that teachers tend to blame parents and sometimes other teachers. It is clear that we all need to take a hard look at the messages we send to children daily and reflect together on what different messages we might work to collectively send.

Finally, when putting these four principles listed above into practice, some values -- especially achievement -- play out quite differently across class, race and culture. For many teens, achievement is, for example, about concern for others: it's a means to provide for their family, contribute to their communities and honor their parents' sacrifices for them. It's important for all of us who work with children to be mindful of these differences.

Being a role model for your kids and talking with other adults -- and with kids -- about making caring common seems obvious and easy, but in fact it's hard. It requires awareness of your actions; it requires setting aside time to talk about ethics and justice. It can take us out of our comfort zones. But that's what we expect of our children, and so that's what we have to model as adults. With the help of many like-minded organizations and individuals, we think we've helped start the conversation about making caring common online, in our schools, at dinner tables around the country, and we hope you'll join us with your ideas, your strategies and your passion.