Family, Kids & Relationships

The Rhetoric/Reality Gap: Harvard Explains How We’re Teaching Our Kids To Care Less About Kindness

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In theory, we all want our kids to learn kindness, caring, and fairness, and may even talk about these values frequently with our kids. But in reality, says a Harvard Graduate School of Education report, the main message they are getting from us is that their own happiness and personal achievement (like getting good grades) are more important. The report details the so-called “rhetoric/reality” gap “between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day.”

Previous research shows that most parents and teachers believe that developing caring kids should be prioritized over kids’ achievements. However, according to the Harvard survey data, 80 percent of children think that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others (and kids thought almost the same about their teachers). The report says that “the power and frequency of parents’ daily messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.”

Further, the report points out, “here’s the irony: the focus on happiness, and the focus on achievement in affluent communities, doesn’t appear to increase either children’s achievement or their happiness.” Other studies have shown that when parents don’t prioritize kindness in their children, those children have trouble developing fundamental relationship skills — which, in the long term, negatively impacts their happiness in life because they don’t know how to be a good parent, friend, or partner.

So what can we all do to “walk the walk” and re-prioritize kindness? Kindness and caring actually take a lot of practice, just like other life skills, urges the report. So giving our children plenty of opportunities to help out friends, family, and neighbors is a good start. Getting involved in volunteer projects as a family, starting family traditions to donate to community organizations, encouraging kids to take on a helper role in the classroom or other groups they are a part of, and expecting children to help out regularly around the house can all contribute to making kindness a “practice.”

Another important way to give kindness a boost in your home is to be conscious of what you are giving your kids attention for on a regular basis. For example, author and speaker Scott Mautz suggests in Inc., “I keep a little mental counter and try to compliment my daughter for her kindness three times for every time I’d compliment her about an achievement. My wife and I also ask our daughter about kindness shown during her day, not just about how she did on a test or some other standard success metric.”

Of course we all want our kids to be successful, happy, and caring, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting all three. But over-pushing achievement isn’t very effective — while, on the other hand, prioritizing kindness actually ends up boosting kids’ success and happiness too. Psychologist Adam Grant and writer Allison Sweet Grant assert in The Atlantic, “Quite a bit of evidence suggests that children who help others end up achieving more than those who don’t.” They cite studies showing that students who are more helpful in the classroom end up with better outcomes when it comes to traditional measures of academic and career success.



Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.