NPR Ed
2:15 pm
Mon July 14, 2014

For Most Kids, Nice Finishes Last

Originally published on Mon July 14, 2014 4:24 pm

A new study holds up a mirror to America's parents. A researcher at Harvard surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students in 33 different schools around the nation about what they thought their folks cared about most: that they achieve at a high level, that they are happy (defined as "feeling good most of the time"), or that they care for others. Almost 80 percent of youth picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while about 20 percent selected caring for others. The survey also shows that about 80 percent of kids themselves rank achievement or happiness as most important, paralleling what they believe their parents value most.

Mari Brennan Barerra and Joel Barrera are your quintessential do-gooders. They both work in the public sector, sit on multiple nonprofit boards, volunteer at a soup kitchen, and even picked their church because it was the one most committed to community service. Not surprisingly, they also say they have made it a priority to raise their kids to be caring and contributing.

If their daughter, Mila, 15, had to say whether her parents cared more about her being good to others or being successful, she says it'd be close, but she'd have to say "good," she hedges.

Her brother, James, 13, however, doesn't hesitate.

"Successful," he says.

How does he know? Because achievement in school is what his parents nag him about, and reward him for, the most. For example, they let him quit volunteering at the soup kitchen when he didn't like it, but he gets no such pass on schoolwork. Similarly, Mila says, her parents got really happy and took her out to a nice restaurant for dinner to reward her for getting a B instead of a C.

"It's one of those things people say, like, I really want you to be a good person, like that's my main thing," she says. "But deep inside, it's like, but I really want you to be successful."

Rhetoric Vs. Reality

Rick Weissbourd's Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education published the study. Weissbourd says the results reveal a "rhetoric-reality gap" on the part of parents. In other research, parents have claimed that they value caring above all, but that's not what kids are internalizing.

"Kids are picking up on these mixed messages," he says. It could be little things, he says, like letting your son inflate his community-service commitment on a college application, or not asking your daughter to reach out to a friendless child on the playground.

"I don't think parents realize that these messages are drowning out other messages about caring and equality and fairness," Weissbourd says.

The study doesn't necessarily point to a decline in morality among young people. Still, Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says the results are troubling.

He references a Teddy Roosevelt quote: "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."

Character education is something of a trend in schools these days. Central Queens Academy, a public middle school in New York City, focuses on character and community. Kids there are rewarded for things like kindness and being a team player, not just for getting straight A's. But when students took part in the kindness survey, their answers were no different from anyone else's.

"It was eye-opening," says principal Jesse Tang. "Our school is trying to buck certain ways of thinking, and we are working against a lot of these influences."

One big influence is colleges, and what they value in the admissions process. They may pay lip service to community service but, Tang says, kids know what really counts.

Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions at Duke University, says it makes sense that colleges should prioritize grades; they are, after all, academic institutions. And besides, he notes, it'd be hard to judge a kid's kindness from an application. But, he says, colleges could do a little more to incentivize good character.

"We have work to do in how we talk about what we value, and making decisions consistent with what we say," Guttentag says.

Small Gestures

Harvard's Weissbourd agrees that colleges could make a big difference with even small gestures. For example, he says, colleges could count hours that a student spent taking care of an elderly grandfather or baby sister as much as they count community service work in Costa Rica.

But ultimately, Weissbourd says, it comes down to parents walking the walk, not just talking the talk. It's a hard thing to do, even for the most committed humanitarians, like the Barreras, who like many are swayed by their economic anxieties. "Our main job as parents is to launch them into the world," says Joel Barrera. "You know, I just want her to be able to make her own way in the world." "I worry all the time," adds Mari. "I wonder what will happen down the road. ... I hope I'm not condemning my kids to a life of poverty."

But Weissbourd says the good news is that being caring and being a high achiever are not necessarily at odds with each other. Positive psychologists like Martin Seligman emphasize that "authentic happiness" comes from connection with other people, not just pursuing self-interest. Not only that, but empathy does tend to improve one's collaboration skills, which have made it onto the short list of "21st century literacies," suggesting that getting along with others is integral to achievement.

So the bottom line is, as Weissbourd points out, that teaching kids to be mindful of others could also make them more successful.

As well as, of course, just being the right thing to do.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Most parents would say that compassion and generosity are key building blocks to raising successful, well-rounded adults. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, that's not the message kids are getting.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Mari and Joel Barrera are your quintessential do-gooders. They both work in the public sector, sit on multiple boards, volunteer at a soup kitchen and even picked their church because it was most committed to community service. They also say it's a priority to raise their kids to be caring and contributing.

JOEL BARRERA: Talk about your service project, Mila.

MILA BARRERA: Oh, so I'm going to El Salvador this summer.

SMITH: If she had to say whether her parents cared more about her being good or successful, 15-year-old Mila says it'd be close, but she'd say good. Her 13-year-old brother, James, doesn't hesitate.

JAMES BARRERA: Successful.

SMITH: How does he know? 'Cause that's what his folks reward him for and nag him about most.

BARRERA: Most of the pressure is on the school side.

SMITH: For example, his parents let him quit the soup kitchen 'cause he didn't like it, but he gets no such pass on school work. Mila says she got dinner out when she got a B instead of a C, and grown-ups always light up when kids get into a great school instead of a good one.

BARRERA: It's like, parents say, like, it doesn't matter. But it does matter. And that's how you grow up - kind of like, oh, like, Harvard. And, like, I mean they want me to be successful.

SMITH: Mila and James are typical of the more than 10,000 middle and high school students around the nation surveyed by a Harvard researcher. Eighty percent say their parents care more that they're high achieving and happy than caring and good, even though for years parents have been telling researchers the opposite.

RICK WEISSBOURD: What was surprising about the research is a kind of rhetoric-reality gap, and kids are picking up on these mixed messages.

SMITH: Harvard researcher Rick Weissbourd says parents don't realize how their everyday small acts speak louder than their words.

WEISSBOURD: It's, you know, letting kids fudge about their community service in college applications, or it's not requiring kids to reach out to a friendless kid on the playground. I don't think most parents are aware that these quiet day-to-day messages are, in many cases, drowning out other messages about caring and integrity and fairness.

SMITH: Weissbourd's study does not suggest any decline in kids' morality. Indeed, Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at University of Missouri at St. Louis, doubts that's the case.

MARVIN BERKOWITZ: There are quotes going back at least three or 4,000 years in which adults lament that today's youth are the worst, morally, ever.

SMITH: But still, Berkowitz says, it is troubling that for so many kids achievement trumps morality.

BERKOWITZ: There's a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt in which he said to educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

SMITH: So-called character education is trendy in schools these days. Jesse Tang is principal of Central Queens Academy, a public middle school in New York focused on character and community, where students are recognized for things like kindness and teamwork - not just for straight A's. But Tang's students who took part in the survey answered the same as the rest - that achievement is most important to their parents and their teachers.

JESSE TANG: It was eye-opening to see that achievement and kindness were so far apart. And so I think in terms of what our school is trying to do to buck certain mindsets or ways of thinking, certainly - we are kind of working against a lot of those influences.

SMITH: Especially from colleges who may say they value community service. But, Tang says, kids know what really counts. Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions at Duke University, says it only makes sense that academic institutions care most about grades. and anyway he says it's hard to judge a kid's kindness from an application. But, Guttentag says, colleges could do a little more to incentivize good character.

CHRISTOPH GUTTENTAG: We have work to do in how we talk about what we value and making decisions consistent with what we say. It can have an impact on what students do but maybe not as much as we think.

SMITH: Harvard's Rick Weissbourd agrees. Ultimately it comes down to parents walking the walk and not just talking the talk. A hard thing to do, even for the most committed do-gooders like Mari and Joel Barrera.

BARRERA: Or main job as parents is to launch them into the world. And it's very hard even to stay middle-class. You know, I just want her to be able to make her own way in the world.

SMITH: The good news, Weissbourd says, is that teaching kids to be more mindful of others will also make them better collaborators at work. So besides being the right thing to do, he says, that might end up making kids more successful as well. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.