Why Parents Must Make Teaching Kindness a Priority

In our latest discussion as part of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s pioneering Q & A series, we spoke with Dr. Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer on education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Weissbourd’s work focuses on resilience and moral development. He also runs the Making Caring Common Project, a national initiative designed to make concern for others a key part of parenting at home and learning in school. 

Senior writer for CPTC, Allison Gilbert, an award-winning journalist and author, had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Weissbourd about his work and how parents and teens can nurture empathy and bring more of it into their lives. 

Dr. Richard Weissbourd photographed by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Allison Gilbert: Why is your work with the Making Caring Common Project so important?

Richard Weissbourd: We began our work out of concern that the definition of success in schools and in parenting is often dangerously limited. We’ve made caring about our own achievements and happiness far more important than caring about justice and the common good.

AG: How did you come to this conclusion?

RW: When I was raising my kids, I became very aware of just how frequently parents were organizing activities around their children’s happiness and achievements. This experience caused me, and my colleagues, to launch a series of studies.

By now, we’ve probably surveyed 50,000 middle and high school students, and we’ve asked them a version of this question: “What’s most important to you: Caring for other people, achieving in school, or being happy?” Caring tends to come in last. We also ask students, “Are your parents prouder of you if you get good grades or if you’re a good community member at school?” Students were 2-3 times more likely to say their parents would be prouder of them if they got good grades. 

There’s something especially striking about these responses, however: parents tell us what’s most important to them is that their children care for others. Clearly, there’s a reality gap, a difference between what parents are saying and what adolescents are actually hearing and absorbing.

AG: Does caring for others get in the way of teens finding joy and academic success?

RW: Caring about others isn’t at all incompatible with achievement or happiness. But when young people are too focused on their own achievements and happiness, they’re more likely to put their own needs first in situations where their own interests and the interests of others collide. They may be less likely, for example, to pass a ball in a basketball game when they really want to shoot or to help a peer with homework when the class is being graded on a curve. They’re less likely to be generous or fair. They’re less likely to stand up to those who bully or harm people in other ways. They’re more likely to be selfish in their day to day interactions.

“Parents should expect their teens to care for people, including individuals who are different from them.”

AG: In your research, what is the key to raising teens who are caring now, and who remain caring as they grow into adults?

RW: Parents should expect their teens to care for people, including individuals who are different from them. Caring across differences is the basis for justice. Caring is too frequently marginalized. It’s often not a major part of our children’s identity. Parents and caregivers need to model caring and help teens practice it by making sure they do chores and regularly help out at home and in the community. Caring is like a muscle, in many ways. It strengthens with use.

AG: Can you suggest certain words or phrases parents can say during a busy week of school or on the weekend that will help bring out the best character in their teens?

RW: Parents should get into the habit of asking questions. For example, a great question to ask your teenager is: “What do you think is most important to me in raising you?” It’s a wonderful basis for conversation and a terrific way to hold each other accountable. If kindness and caring for other people are really your priorities, you can have thoughtful discussions about that.

AG: Last question! You’re also conducting research on helping teens and young adults develop better romantic relationships. You’re doing this by looking at the power of mentorships. How does mentorship come into play?

RW: We are failing to prepare teens and young adults for romantic love. In many cases, since “how to love” is not taught in schools, and sometimes not taught at home, we’ve handed that responsibility over to pop culture — movies, films, songs, and television. But those images of love are sometimes far more dangerous than we’d like to admit. In many ways, falsely comparing a crush to mature love is often more harmful to teens than images of violence. What parents can do is talk about mature, ethical love and how it develops and how we nurture it over time. But these types of conversations don’t only depend on parents. That’s where mentorship comes into play. Mentors can be aunts, uncles, and even coaches. All of these adults have potential wisdom to share.

For more on Weissbourd’s work promoting healthy romantic and sexual relationships, read “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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