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How to Define Success

How to teach kids that caring for others is as important as caring about yourself


Summer, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Near the top of the list is freedom from interaction with my children around homework. To be fair, they love school and are fairly responsible about homework completion. Nevertheless, I initiate daily conversations about homework – whether and how it was it done, and whether it actually made it back into the backpack ahead of the next school day. This year, our oldest son is entering high school, so I’ve been anticipating plenty of conversation about managing schoolwork in the face of expanded social life, activities and freedom.

This seems like responsible parenting, yet I now wonder if this emphasis on schoolwork as well as the overt value that our family places on academic success has a downside. I started contemplating this when I read “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” a study released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project that offers valuable insights into teaching, learning and parenting. Authored by Rick Weissbourd, Stephanie Jones and colleagues, the report shares the startling indication that a “large majority of youth across a wide spectrum of races, cultures and classes appear to value aspects of personal success – achievement and happiness – over concern for others.” The primary reason for this? We – parents, teachers and other formative adults – are sending mixed messages about what we value, and these signals influence young people far more than we may realize.

“The Children We Mean to Raise” points out that though adults indicate that they value caring, fairness and kindness, nearly 80% of youth surveyed reported that they believe that their parents are more concerned about achievement or personal happiness than caring for others. These young people were also three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

The effects of these perceptions and beliefs are worrisome. As the study points out, when youth don’t value fairness and caring, they are more likely to be at risk of negative behaviors such as dishonesty, cruelty, cheating, bullying and harassment, and displays of disrespectful behavior. And when families emphatically value personal happiness, parents may inadvertently encourage their children to avoid challenge and struggle. Certainly, these are not the children we mean to raise.

The report concludes with practical suggestions for adults to shift our collective values:

* Offer frequent practical opportunities for young people to practice kindness and caring. Visit an ailing family member or friend, volunteer in your community and find ways to be kind and fair to each other around the house and in daily activities.

* Teach children to expand their circles of concern. In addition to being attentive to family members and close friends, it’s important to consider the perspectives of people who may seem invisible, or at least unremarkable. Teach your children to be consistently polite to everyone they may meet, however briefly. Talk with your kids about the work that other people do. What might be fun about being a school custodian? What might be difficult? Such conversations may help a kid to feel empathy for the person who cleans up lunchroom spills, thereby encouraging them to take more care and leave less mess.

* Be a strong moral role model. Our kids notice what we say and what we do. So show them that you value fairness. Be consistent, even when it’s difficult, and take the opportunity to acknowledge your own mistakes with meaningful apologies.

* Help children manage destructive feelings. When we’re angry or upset, it’s easy to lose sight of others’ feelings and needs. Teach your kids that while what they are feeling is okay, the ways they express their feelings may be damaging. In calm moments, talk about and practice what to do so that their responses don’t cause undue pain for others.

* Help children think through ethical questions and problems. Talk with your children about issues of fairness and justice. Ask them questions about thorny issues and help them sort through their responses. This helps kids develop the habit of taking alternate points of view in order to develop empathy and understanding.

During this coming school year, I’ll still ask my kids about their homework – and I’ll also ask them to tell me something good they did for someone else, because the anticipation of the question may itself spark some extra kindness. Talking with kids about what good they did for the world as well as what good they did for themselves will make us happier now and will have a powerful effect later.

Read the report and learn more at