National Edition

Parents teach kids to value achievement over compassion

Published: Wednesday, July 2 2014 7:05 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 2 2014 12:08 p.m. MDT

As parents teach kids, children learn to value achievement over compassion to others, studies say.

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The values children are learning from their parents aren't the values parents think they are teaching, according to a new study from Harvard University.

The study from the "Make Caring Common" project shows only 20 percent of the 10,000 children surveyed said they prioritized "caring for others" above personal success. The children who valued achievement over morality were also less likely to feel empathy for others, the study found.

One of the problems with this trend is that stepping over others to achieve success doesn't make youth happier or more successful, child psychologist Michele Borba told The Atlantic. In fact, a lack of empathy inhibits the ability to succeed, and is dangerous for society: "Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized," Borba said.

Parents often sabotage their own attempts to teach good principles, according to online magazine ParentMap. This happens "when we argue with teachers for better grades, harangue coaches for more field time for our kid, don’t require our kids to reach out to a friendless child on the playground, or when we cater to our child’s every need so that — surprise, surprise — she has difficulty showing concern for anyone other than herself."

Rick Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones, the authors of the "Make Caring Common" report, suggest several solutions, including giving children more opportunities to exhibit caring behaviors and put others' needs first. Parents also should make sure their children have strong positive role models.

Emily Bazelon, a mother and writer for Slate, suggests another way to encourage children to value empathy in a blog about the study: "One question I try to ask myself: When my kids tell me they’ve been kind to someone or helped someone who seems vulnerable, am I just as full of praise as I am if they ace math tests or English papers?"

In 2012, 96 percent of parents surveyed for a report from the University of Virginia claimed they valued empathy and having strong moral character above all else. However, the report from Harvard found that three times as many youth agreed than disagreed with the 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.”

Parents want their children to exercise kindness, but many children and adolescents receive a different message. The 2012 report card on ethics from the Josephson Institute found that 57 percent of high schoolers believe that finding success in "the real world" requires people to do "whatever it takes to win," regardless of fairness or morality.

Emily Hales is an intern on the national team, covering issues facing families in the United States. She is a communications major at Brigham Young University.

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