Dr. Richard Weissbourd opened his talk on “Raising Caring and Happy Children in a Challenging Time” by stating his primary worry is how we’ve elevated happiness and success and de-emphasized caring and empathy. When students were asked on a survey how important achievement, caring, and happiness were to them, about 50% prioritized achievement, 30% happiness, and 20% caring. Parents say they value caring over achievement but when their children were asked to rate their priorities, the kids felt their parents had the same breakdown of priorities as they did. Furthermore, when asked to rate parents as a group, parents themselves came up yet again with a similar breakdown except with some shift from caring to happiness. This disjunction between what parents say they believe and what kids (and other parents) perceive results from what Dr. Weissbourd calls the “rhetoric reality gap.”
His research finds kids today in general are not reaching out to friendless kids or expressing thanks as often as in the past. And they are actually less happy. He believes we are depriving kids of coping strategies and that, in our legitimate drive to get kids to identify and articulate their feelings, we are neglecting the importance of understanding other people’s perspectives and feelings.
Caring for other people, he noted, will make you happier, but that shouldn’t be the motivation. Morality by definition is about sacrifice. We should be compassionate for the sake of compassion.
He added the caveats that caring is still important to many kids, and that of course the ethics of valuing caring, happiness, and achievement can coexist.
Schools and colleges don’t focus as much on ethical development as they used to. Religious institutions are losing members and commitment. We are having fewer conversations about values as a society. So, Dr. Weissbourd asked, how can we reproduce these functions of religious institutions in a secular way?
Dr. Weissbourd also spoke to the “praise craze,” where we are in general overpraising our kids and telling them we’re proud way too often. “Praise,” he noted, “can become a constant assessment” which leads to greater fragility and greater competitiveness. “The self grows by being known” so don’t stop praising, just be careful about how and how often.
Are we too close to our kids? Right now, we may be at unprecedented levels. This is great in many ways, but can also raise concerns if overdone. It’s not a good idea to try and be a best friend. Kids may need to idealize us if they are to internalize our values. And they need to separate. One reason parents are getting so close to their kids may be we are having fewer and fewer friendships. Social media works well for relationships only; we need to cultivate and maintain true friendships.
Dr. Weissbourd listed seven suggestions to improve this situation:
- Make caring a priority.
- Caring is a muscle. Expect everyday kindness and praise the exceptional.
- Expand children’s circle of concern. There needs to be cognitive and affective aspects of empathy. We need to ensure we feel empathy for people different than ourselves.
- Enable kids to be ethical philosophers.
- Engage in reflective adult modeling. It’s not about being perfect. We need to be open to feedback.
- Liberate kindness… from shame, jealousy, stereotypes, etc. Shame is different than guilt: public vs. private, imposed vs. internal, public exposure of one’s defects vs. actions which can be a source of learning, repair, and atonement.
- Enable children and teens to lead. Democratic classroom is one example.
Ultimately, we need to be protecting the vulnerable and talking across the aisle. And we need to scaffold these conversations.
I had my own personal reactions to much of what he said, often agreeing, sometimes hedging, always aware there’s hedging for the right reasons and hedging to run away from a truth which you don’t want to face. In the end, then, each of us can take his ideas, reflect on them, and then use that reflective process to shape how we work with our kids, be that our students or our own children.