Ask parents how important it is to instill kindness in their kids, and most will rank it high: even as their very top priority, according to Harvard researchers.
But children surveyed by the university’s Making Caring Common (pdf) project said, overwhelmingly, that they were getting a different message. The researchers spoke with 10,000 kids at a range of middle and high schools in the US in 2013 to 2014. Nearly 80% said that their parents taught them that personal happiness and high achievement were more important than caring for other people.
But all is not lost. The study makes some recommendations for raising children that genuinely believe kindness is important:
1) Give kids opportunities to practice being kind. Children aren’t born with an innate ability to act kindly, but learn it in the same way as they might pick up an instrument or a language. Daily opportunities to practice—something as simple as helping another child with homework—can make a difference.
2) Children need to learn two important skills. These will help kids build a wider “circle of concern,” the researchers say. Children need to learn to “zoom in” on individuals, and truly listen to them. They also need to be able to “zoom out” to see a bigger picture—effectively, learning to put human experience in context.
3) Kids need role models. That doesn’t mean being perfect parents. It means working on empathy, and demonstrating concern and sympathy so that children can be exposed to it.
4) Help children manage destructive feelings. Shame, anger, and jealousy can override the intention to be kind. Kids need to know that such feelings are normal, but can be addressed in different ways. Children are “moral philosophers,” the researchers write. “When adults spark children’s thinking with ethical questions they put issues of injustice on children’s radar and help children learn how to weigh their various responsibilities to others and themselves.”
5) Adults should stop passing the buck. Parents worry about children’s moral state, the researchers note, but it’s hard to find adults who admit they might be part of the problem. Adults need to interrogate the messages they’re sending, and ask themselves: what values am I really instilling?