Your Actions are so Loud, I Can Barely Hear Your Words…And Eight Ways to Fix That

 mom and boy

Parents: Do you want to raise moral kids?

Teachers: Do you care about what kind of people your students grow up to be?

Of course you do.  Ask any parent if they want to raise moral kids or any teacher if they want the kids they work with to be awesome people, and the response will be almost 100%.  We aspire to have children who are responsible, caring and trustworthy.  Besides, who is going to say that they don’t want to raise children with good character?  Or stated another way, who says “I’m cool with raising a selfish jerk who disregards others’ need.” (By the way, if you are, then you are on the wrong blog.  Just saying.).

A recent study by the good folks at Harvard confirms that 96% of parents surveyed say that they want to raise ethical, caring children, citing the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential.”   As parents and as teachers it is our intention to place honor over victory and ethics over achievement.

Kids: Is that the message that our actions send to you?

Probably not, suggests that same Harvard study.

80 percent of the kids surveyed believed that their parents “are more convened about achievement or happiness than caring for others.”  By the same token, almost an identical percentage said their teachers place achievement ahead caring. Not surprising then that students were three times as likely to agree than disagree with the statement that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

The gap in the message between what parent and teachers think they are valuing and what the kids think these adults value is almost the exact opposite.   It is a gigantic chasm.

The sad part is: the kids are right.

We give lip service to being a good person, but we celebrate being a high achieving person.

Awards are handed out for the highest grades, the most wins or the best works of art.  Sure, there might be a couple of the “softer” awards, an acknowledgement for community service or something of the sorts, but those are given out almost as an afterthought.

It would be worrisome enough that our kids and students thought us to be hypocrites, but this focus on achievement over being a good person has long term implications for our children’s development.  You see, people who care about others can relate to their peers, possess greater empathy and are generally more well liked than those who do not possess such traits.  Inadvertently, our achievement valued culture is raising kids who are less connected to others and therefore less likely to be happy.

So what is a parent or teacher to do?

Model caring and compassion. Walk your talk.  Be kind to your neighbors.  Watch how you speak about others in from of your kids.  Let them see you being empathetic.  They will follow.

Emphasize kindness and empathy over achievement and awards.   It’s fun to win and it’s lovely to receive recognition, but not at the cost of become a nasty, vicious person.  Remember: the problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.

Get your children involved in community service.  One of the best ways to get outside you own concerns is to go and help someone with their problems, expecting nothing in return.

Hold high standards when it comes to how teachers, store clerks, coaches etc. are treated.  Being athletic, artistic or brilliant is not enough.  Being a good person, however is,  Expect that your children’s default mode is kindness.  Talk to them about what you value.

Check your own behavior.  You say you value resilience, but you never let your child struggle.  You say you value kindness, but you snap at store clerks and waiters.  We are all at least a little guilty of this.

Teach that there is a difference between doing what you have a right to do and what is right to do.  This is an important distinction that far too many adults struggle with in raising kids.  For instance, your child has a right to invite whomever she wants to her birthday party.  However, if her invitation list includes 90% of the class, she should be sensitive to hurt feelings and either pare down her list or include the entire class.

Make a big deal out of your children doing kind things for other people.  We buy iPods for getting on the Principal’s List or take our kids to ice cream if they win a game.  But do we reward them for taking care of a sick friend or being kind to young children?

Praise effort over achievement.  While winning is fun and admission to a top college makes a parent swell with pride, rooting for kids based on them being good people or for trying hard in the face of defeat are good place to start.

As a parent and a teacher I find myself wandering into the celebration of quantifiable achievement.  We can count a score or medals. Or we can measure GPAs, SATs and list college admissions.  It’s harder to quantify the habits that create good people.  How many times a child shares, listens or shows empathy is not easily counted.  Newspapers seldom write articles on kids who are kind.  It’s up to modeling good character and consistently reinforcing the habits that cultivate good people to ensure that not only we raise kids with character but also kids who have the best shot at being happy.

Turns out, the two go hand in hand.