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The findings and implications of Harvard's "The Children We Mean to Raise"

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The mantra growing up in my house wasn’t to get straight “As” or the biggest trophy, or, for that matter to be the happiest, winningest kid on the block. No, it was, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Oh, how the times have changed since my early days--but not necessarily for the better as evidenced by Harvard University’s “The Children We Mean to Raise.” As you read and consider the findings, ask yourself if you’re walking the walk, so to speak, telling your kids that caring and kindness matter most and behaving accordingly, or saying one thing and doing another.

Actually, the full title of the study/survey is “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending about Values.” Needless to say, it's an eye-opener.

More than 10,000 students from 33 schools from across the country, together with countless other children, parents, and teachers, were asked to identify what is most important to them: “caring for others,” “achieving at a high level,” or “being a happy person (feeling good most of the time).” The kids were also asked how they thought their parents and teachers would respond.

Before getting to the report, though, let me tell you what I learned when I posed the same question to several friends and neighbors. Among the older set, caring topped the list, followed by hard work and achievement. As for happiness, said one 66-year-old, “Happiness is a choice, so forget about happiness. It happens if you want it to.”

Not so the youngsters I interviewed. No, they responded much as did the students in the Harvard study, which found that:

  • 48% picked achievement as their top priority;
  • 30% chose happiness;
  • 22% said caring matters most.

Said one surveyed participant: “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”

Looked at another way, the researchers determined that:

  1. 60% of the students ranked achievement over caring for others;
  2. Nearly 66% believed that their peers would rank achievement over caring, too.

They were also three times likelier to believe their peers would agree than disagree with the statement: “I’m prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Oh, yes, then there’s the fact that the older students ranked happiness ahead of both caring and achievement …

Meanwhile, most of the surveyed parents said that raising compassionate, high-minded children is their highest priority, but here’s what their children had to say:

  • Just 19% thought caring is their parents’ top priority;
  • 27% said it’s happiness;
  • 54% said it’s achievement.

In other words, there’s a disconnect between parents’ view of the messages they’re putting out there for their kids and reality. Moreover, almost 66% said that both their parents and peers would put achievement above caring for others.

At the same time, the students were also three times likelier to agree than disagree that: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class.”

And that’s not the end of the bad news. As was the case with the students, the teachers and other school personnel felt that parents don't prioritize caring. In fact, 80% of them see parents as putting achievement above any other considerations.

However, while those same educators asserted that caring trumps achievement--and 68% of them put it ahead of happiness--62% of the surveyed students said teachers put “doing well academically” on top. Just 15% thought caring comes first for their teachers. Another disconnect.

And the final takeaway: 60% of the surveyed students ranked hard work above kindness, suggesting that, perhaps, the time is ripe for a Golden Rule comeback.

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