Whether they’re in the classroom or on the field, kids are under immense pressure from parents, teachers, coaches, and caregivers to achieve. But are we doing our kids a disservice when we focus too much on our kids’ achievements instead of moral values like kindness, caring, and empathy? Rick Weissbourd is a psychologist, author, and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also co-directs Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, which arms parents and schools with information and tools to help them prioritize moral and social values in childrens’ lives. Rick discusses the relationship between moral and social character and achievement in children. He also shares advice on how to raise kind, caring, grateful children and why this should be every parent’s goal.
Listen to this episode to learn:
Raising kind and caring kids
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard and raising kind caring kids is sometimes one of the hardest parts of the job, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, kindness is a virtue we can and should teach our kids at any age. That's the message from today's guest Rick Weissbourd. He's a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
He also co-directs the Making Caring Common project, a group that's focused on helping us to raise kind, compassionate, and caring children. We recorded this episode in the middle of the holiday season, the perfect time to talk about caring and kindness, but these are virtues we need to be talking about all year round. Here's Rick. Have a listen. Rick thank you so much for being here today.
Rick Weissbourd: It's a pleasure. It's great to be here.
Emily Paisner: You're the executive director of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard. Can you tell me a little bit about this project, its mission, and why you felt the need to start this?
Rick Weissbourd: It really begins several years ago with my own parenting. When my kids were, I don't know, around 10, 7 and 4 and I became very attuned to the parenting culture we were in, I felt like there is a-- I live in a community where there is a very intense focus on achievement, a very intense focus on well-being in kids and not the same kind of focus on caring for others.
That's frightening when you think about it. The degree to which we have elevated achievement and happiness and demoted or marginalized caring for others. That was the basis for Making Caring Common. How do we change our basic school priorities, parenting priorities, so we are putting concern for others, concern for the common good, front, and center in child-raising again?
Emily Paisner: How are you doing that? How are you getting that message out there?
Rick Weissbourd: We're doing it in a number of different ways. We have strategies, guideposts for parents. We have a school network that includes about 80 schools where we get strategies out to schools that are around promoting caring, promoting an understanding of justice, promoting gratitude, promoting empathy, promoting self-awareness. College admissions are another focus of our work because one of the things we're trying to do is to change the messages that kids are getting about what's important.
We do a scan, and we look at what are the institutions that are sending message to young people about what's important. One of the things that we quickly realize is that for many young people, college admissions are one of the few rites of passage they have in this country. Few times where they're really able to think about it and distill their identity and what they want going forward.
The message they're hearing is that what's important is your SAT scores, your grades, how many accomplishments you have, whether you're an athlete, whether you're legacy, whether you're a donor. The message they are not hearing or we're not hearing is that what's most important is that you're a good person and a good citizen.
Emily Paisner: Has there been any progress throughout this application process for colleges to start looking at the people behind all of those numbers and activities?
Rick Weissbourd: There's been a lot of progress in the sense that we have 200 colleges that have signed on to this now. Our first report or our second report I think really resonated with people out there. I think it did send a loud message to high school students that ethical character is important, but we still have colleges, too many--
We had some colleges that made significant changes, but we have too many colleges who are still doing the same things. Who are still prioritizing number of achievements, number of extracurricular activities that aren't, to answer your question, really getting behind the numbers and looking at meaningful engagement whether you're meaningfully engaged in learning. That aren't really weighing ethical character in admissions. I feel like we've made some significant progress. I also feel like we have light years to go.
Emily Paisner: Adam Grant just wrote an article in The Atlantic called Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids, and he cited research from the Making Caring Common project. He highlights that kindness is in decline which as a parent and person just hurts me to my core. Again, he highlights his research that when you ask a child what they think their parents want most for them, 80% will say achievement and happiness but when you ask parents the same question, the overwhelming majority of them will say that instilling a strong ethical character in their children is essential.
There's this big gap between parents' perception and a child's reality. Why do you think that kids are hearing such different messages from their parents?
Rick Weissbourd: I think what's going on is the hidden curriculum. It's all the flood of messages that we send to kids day-to-day. As parents when we talk about grades at the dinner table, when we don't require our kids to reach out to a friendless kid on the playground is we're worried they're going to be unhappy. We prioritize their happiness. When in parent-teacher conferences we are constantly asking about grades and we're not asking, "Is my child a good citizen here?" "Is my child a good person?" It's all these hidden messages.
I was interviewing this couple. They were trying to decide whether they should let their daughter quit the soccer team. The mother said, "Let her quit. She's not having fun anymore. The father said, "She's a really good soccer player and we'll help her get into a selective college." I realized at one point that neither of them asked the question, does she have a responsibility for the team? This is the kind of hidden messaging I mean. The degree to which happiness and achievement become the priorities. We send the signal to kids that they don't really have responsibility for other people.
Emily Paisner: Right, so how can we as parents reframe the conversation? This reminds me of a children's book that I absolutely love and I read to my kids quite often called How To Fill a Bucket. It talks all about how you go about your day and how you need to help to fill other people's buckets with kindness. You want to be a bucket filler and not a bucket detractor. How can we as parents help to reframe the conversation so that our kids are being bucket sellers?
Rick Weissbourd: I think one of the things we can do really-- There's some reflexes that we have that we could check. One of the reflexes we have is we've said, "Most important thing to me is that you're happy." What about if you say, "The most important thing to me is that you're kind", or "The most important thing to me is that you're kind and happy"? What about if we really lived that expectation?
That the conversations about school were about, "Did you help anybody today?" "Did you see somebody be helpful today?" If there's an expectation that you're going to pitch in around the house. That you're going to do chores. You're not going to get a trophy for doing the dishes or for clearing the table. This is what we do. We help each other out. You're going to be helpful to neighbors. It's the infusing of those expectations day-to-day that I think is most important.
Another reflex that we have is we say, "I have to do what's best for my child." We say this all the time but that's true. You do have to do what's best for your child, but better to say, "I had to do what's best for my child and I also have to really deeply consider other people's children and what I can do for other people's children and what my kids can do for other people's children."
What we're really trying to do is to get parents to reflect on their parenting more and to think about these signals that they're sending day-to-day to their kids and how good they can shift the balance. It's really important that our kids are happy. It's important that our kids are meaningfully achieving. We're not saying those things are unimportant. We're saying we're out of balance and that they're very concrete ways in which parents can shift the balance and schools can shift the balance.
Emily Paisner: That actually is a great lead into my next question. That is, what is the role of schools in this equation?
Rick Weissbourd: One of the things that I find when I talk to parents and schools and college admissions when I talk to college admissions officers is that parents tend to blame schools. Schools tend to blame parents. Parents and schools around the college admissions process blame the college admissions office. Everybody's blaming each other. Everybody is finger-pointing. I think it's really the wrong way to think about it. They all have roles to play. Parents have a key role to play. Schools have a key role to play. College admissions has a key role to play.
There are many schools that are taking this seriously. I don't think that these schools are typical. By seriously, I mean they have core ethical values that live and breathe in the school. They pay attention to whether or not those values are being implemented in the school. They have curriculum that ask kids to think about ethical questions. They have exercises where kids are asked to think about the perspective of other people and to develop empathy.
There's a real attention to caring relationships in those schools. They will do surveys to see if kids feel anchored to adults in the school. If kids are feeling bullied or sexually harassed. If they are, these schools will take real steps to solve those problems. They will often put youth in the driver's seat. They'll mobilize youth themselves to take on problems like bullying or sexual harassment or exclusion.
There are a lot of elementary schools that are using good curriculum like Open Circle. That are developing social-emotional skills like gratitude, empathy, social awareness, responsive classroom, second step high school curriculums like Facing History. There are a lot of things schools can do. The problem is that this intense focus on academic achievement has also crowded out attention to ethical character. That's a problem in itself.
Academic achievement again is very important, but the other issue is that when kids are developing empathy, when they're developing self-awareness, when they're developing social awareness, gratitude, the irony is that those skills are very important for their academic achievement and for their college and work success. In crowding out the focus, crowding out attention to those skills, the irony is that in the end, we are probably compromising their academic achievement as well.
Emily Paisner: Can you talk a little bit about the positive effects in adulthood when kids are taught these lessons around kindness and empathy at a young age?
Rick Weissbourd: One of the things I feel strongly about is that you can make a strong case, and I have already to some extent, I hope it's been a strong case that if you develop empathy, if you develop gratitude, social awareness, those things are going to help you achieve. That's true. There's good research to show that those qualities are really important for college success, but they're also important for work success.
If you can take multiple perspectives in a work setting, if you're considered a kind and generous person, in a lot of work settings, you're going to be better liked, you're going to be a better collaborator, you're going to be more productive because you're going to have better collaborations. This is Adam Grant's research, other research, these things do seem to be important in work success, but all that said, and I can't emphasize this enough, I don't think we should tell kids to be kind because it will lead to work success or college success. I think we should tell kids to be kind. [chuckles]
Emily Paisner: Yes, I think I've said to my kids a few times, and I will also say that I don't think they've completely picked up on it, but I have said to them few times, "I don't care about any of that. I just want you to be a good human. I just want you to be a good person." I've said it over and over again. I still don't think it's clicked, but I'll continue to say it with the hopes that something I'm doing will help turn them into those good humans.
Rick Weissbourd: I think there are stages of development where children's goodness can be harder to observe.
Emily Paisner: Especially the way they treat one another, I don't think there's much kindness happening there. You mentioned kids today are under intense pressure to perform. A lot of it does stem from these unrealistic expectations that people are expecting them to work towards to get into a great and amazing college. What harm is it doing to kids when parents are pushing them too hard to be successful, get good grades, win at sports, be the smartest, be the fastest. What damage is that doing?
Rick Weissbourd: I think it's important to distinguish between two different types of achievement. When kids are achieving around things that are really meaningful to them, they can work very hard at it and it can be very energizing and gratifying, fulfilling. There are big race, class, and culture differences in what I've been talking about too but sometimes kids are achieving this, they want to get a good job to support their families, it's not about getting into a selective college.
The meaning of achievement matters a lot, but if you're achieving a lot because you're worried that you're going to shame your parent, if you don't get into a highly selective college or if you don't get a high-status job, that's a huge amount of pressure and it distorts the meaning of achievement, it can make achievement an anxious, unnerving experience all the time.
Emily Paisner: We asked some of our listeners what questions they might have for you and here's what we got. One mom shared that her child is the bully. She is completely beside herself. She doesn't know how this happened, how did she raise a child that could treat others this way? How can she handle this? What strategies work and what can she do now to try and fix this?
Rick Weissbourd: This use of the term bully I think, is important to step back and look at it because a lot of kids are bullied at one stage of development and bullied at another stage of development. Kids go through phases. They're in difficult waters for one reason or another and it can cause them to lash out at other kids and be cruel to other kids. That doesn't mean they are the bully. Do you know what I mean?
Emily Paisner: Right.
Rick Weissbourd: That means they're being driven or fueled by something that is causing them to need to demean or degrade other people. I think it's important to understand what's going on. One of the things that's confusing about empathy is that we often talk about empathy like it's a muscle or a quantity that you just have to build, but often, the bigger issue of empathy is what's getting in the way. Like with a bully what's getting in the way, and it's what's getting in the way that this kid is feeling envious of other kids or competitive with other kids or ashamed for some reason, or really bad about himself for some reason?
That's the exploration the parents, I think, has to do. I wouldn't freak out about it either. Just in the sense that a lot of kids go through stages like this, and it's just important to understand why they're feeling this need. I think it's also important to create the expectation that that's not how we treat people in our family. There will be consequences when you do that. You're going to have to repair it in some way. You're going to have to talk to anybody that you've done damage to.
Emily Paisner: One dad talked about not wanting his child to participate in sports anymore because of some of the other parents are so out of control with the pressure that they put on their kids. How can he model the right behavior for his child and also deal with the other parents who are setting these not so great examples?
Rick Weissbourd: This is an epidemic problem. In my experience, it's not that most parents are doing this, but some parents are doing this in a lot of leagues, including in informal leagues with young kids. I think there are a few things. One of them is that the league should have rules about these guideposts for parents about this, about behavior at games. Parents are screaming at kids at games or parents are screaming at the ref. They should be removed at some point and there should be an understanding about that. There should be a contract that all parents sign around what's appropriate behavior at a game.
I also think parents need to monitor each other, but that's difficult politically. There have been times where I've intervened. I used to coach sports and my kids all played sports. There've been times where I have intervened with other parents. You have to think about those situations and how it's going to land and what's appropriate and what your relationship is to that parent and whether you can get other parents on board sending the same message. These are tricky situations. Sometimes it's more appropriate for the coach to say something to the parents than for another parent to say something to the parent.
I do think that the league needs to be on top of this, coaches need to be on top of this, other parents need to be on top of this. I think you have to have conversations with your kids about what is and is not appropriate behavior. I think you have to ask your kids and your partners and people who are close to you to monitor you too. There are some parents who are blaming other parents, but they're doing versions of the same thing. Ask your partner or your spouse, "Are you embarrassed to sit with me during a game?"
Emily Paisner: [laughs] I am hesitant to ask my husband that question.
Rick Weissbourd: Are you spending dinner and table conversations talking about athletic events constantly? Are you planning vacations around kids' sporting events? There are red flags for parents too that they should be attentive to in this area. Signals to them that maybe their sports achievement pressure is too much.
Emily Paisner: Rick, what are some parting words of advice you can give to our listeners who want to instill more kindness, empathy and caring in their child? How can we encourage our children to spread this kindness?
Rick Weissbourd: I would say a couple of things. One is when you look at what's going on in the country, I don't know how you're feeling about these days, but many days I feel like the way we talk to each other is indecent, it's not civil. There are portions of the country that have become very reactionary, very intolerant of people who are different from them in terms of immigration status, race. These are very concerning things. Sometimes I feel like we're fracturing and coming apart at the seams.
There's signals that we've neglected the raising of moral kids. We really haven't paid attention in the way other generations did to raising kids who are concerned about others, concerned about justice, concerned about the common good, who understand what democracy is and why it's so important and that we have to go back. We live in the age of morality light. We have to go back to something that generations before us understood clearly, which is that the most important role we have as parents and educators is to raise children who are committed to the common good.
That's the big message that I hope that people take away from this. I also hope they take away from this, that there's things that they can do. There are a lot of things they can do if they're deliberate, if they're intentional to raise kids who do care about other people.
Emily Paisner: Rick, thank you so much for joining us today.
Rick Weissbourd: It's been great. Thank you so much.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.