Here’s a quiz. Which of these do you care about most with regards to your middle school or high school child?
-- That they achieve at a high level
-- That they are happy
-- That they care for others
Certainly each of these is important, but you can only pick one. Which one do you want most for your kid right now?
Got your answer? Well, no matter what you chose, here’s what 10,000 teens from 33 different middle and high schools around the U.S. think their parents care about the least: caring for others. Fully 80% of teens think their parents care most about kids’ achievement or kids’ happiness. Only 20% think their parents, first and foremost, want them to be caring people.
In addition, that same 80% of teens mirror what they think their parents want: they also care most about achievement or being happy. Few teens care most about being compassionate and helpful to others.
Harvard researcher Rick Weissbourd believes that parents send mixed messages. They may talk a good game when it comes to community service, volunteering, and participation in religious and charitable efforts but what they really reward are good grades and school honors. What parents bend over backwards to do is ensure their children’s happiness. One student said that his parents permitted him to give up helping out at a local soup kitchen when it cut into his studying. The priorities were clear.
College admissions forms ask about community service and many high school students volunteer in the community in order to have something that is worthy of note from admissions officers. By and large, college admissions, especially to select schools, depends on grades, courses taken, academic honors, and maybe athletic or other extracurricular achievements far more than on evidence a prospective student is a good and caring person.
Despite the emphasis in many schools on character education, being a person of good character often means only that a teen doesn’t have a police record. Parents, schools and colleges alike really don’t pay much attention to caring, compassion, and public service.
If it matters to you that your child grow into a helpful, responsible person – and I hope it does! – then here are some tips for making your interest in raising caring kids more clear to the people that matter – your children themselves.
Encourage participation in all sorts of service. Giving back to the community doesn’t always mean working in a soup kitchen. It can include river cleanup, food drives, helping to tutor kids, working at the animal shelter, or writing letters in support of an issue. There’s no one right way to be involved, so let your child choose.
Encourage participation even in causes you don’t care about or oppose. Maybe your child is passionate about something you could never support yourself. That’s okay. Support the impulse to participate even if you disagree about the issue. When you and your teen discuss his cause, be respectful and try to learn more about it not persuade him to give it up.
Encourage baby steps. Even choosing to be friends with the new kid at school is an expression of care. If your child isn’t interested in organized efforts to make a difference in the world, let her make a difference in little ways, one person at a time.
Give compassion equal time with achievement. Studies have shown that the most successful people are people who have good social skills, show empathy to others, and understand others’ point of view. Being caring is a component of being a happy, sought-after friend and colleague, not just a quality nice to have. It’s not true that nice guys finish last.
Model compassionate service in your own life. One way teens know their parents don’t really value caring behavior is that their parents don’t seem to care about others themselves. Find your own cause and make it a priority. Let your kids see that caring for others and making a difference is important enough that you engage in this too.
One word of caution. To raise a really caring child, it’s important your child get to choose her cause. While having a family cause, one that everyone in the household supports and volunteers in together, seems like a nice idea, it doesn’t do much to inspire compassion in children. Like most other aspects of family and parent opinion, teens are likely to flee from a family cause at the first opportunity and not look back. Instead of imposing a family interest, encourage your teen’s sense of justice and moral outrage at the need he sees around him and let him choose to care.
Choosing to care. It’s important. Make sure your children know it’s important to you.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.