What is most important to you?
A. Achieving at a high level
B. Caring for others
C. Being a happy person
That was the question Harvard Graduate School of Education professors Rick Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones asked of some 10,000 teenagers from 33 different schools across the country over the last 10 years. In June of this past year, in conjunction with HGSE's Making Caring Common Project, they published their results in a monograph entitled "The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values".
Unfortunately, to those of us who work with college-bound, success-driven teens every day, the results weren't terribly startling: 48% of teens said that high achievement was their first priority, 30% said it was personal happiness, and a mere 22% said that caring for others was their top concern. Far more revealing is what Weissbourd and Jones refer to as the "rhetoric / reality gap" which emerged from their findings. That is, their study provides overwhelming evidence that the lack of concern of today's youth for the wellbeing of others does not result from the fact that today's parents don't care about raising kind and caring children. They do. Rather, the study suggests that despite parents' desire to do so, the messages which we adults actually broadcast to our children on a daily basis tell a very different story.
In their conclusion, Weissbourd and Jones offer this sobering advice for those of us concerned with raising a generation of upstanding young men and women:
Closing this rhetoric/reality gap with kids won’t happen overnight. It will mean doing a kind of reckoning, a check on our messages about happiness and achievement in contrast to our messages about caring and fairness. Do we regularly tell our children, for example, that “the most important thing is that you’re happy,” or do we say that “the most important thing is that you act with integrity and are kind?” Do we insist that our children are not rude to us or never treat other people offhandedly? Do we insist that our children do the right thing even if doesn’t make them happy or successful? Do we remind our children of their obligations to their communities, for example their classroom and schools, their teams and school choirs, and their neighborhoods? Do we place consistent ethical demands on our children not only when it collides with their happiness and achievements but when they may be furious at us, when it threatens our own happiness?
It will also mean listening to our children and getting feedback to ensure that our words match our actions. We might simply ask our children whether it’s more important to them to achieve or be caring, and ask which one of these values they think is more important to us, and then discuss misperceptions and misalignments that emerge.
We will, too, have to resist the tendency to assume that it is other parents—not us—who are raising disrespectful and irresponsible kids. Just as it is important for us to push youth to reflect on why they think their peers are less caring and ethical than they are, it is important for us to reflect on why so many of us view ourselves as superior to other parents. We can’t let ourselves off the hook. To one degree or another, the problem is each one of us.
Fortunately, the authors believe there is much we can do to reverse this trend. But it's we - the parents and teachers - who have to do it.