On Teaching Our Kids to Give a Damn

Monday, April 14, 2014

We all want our children to be happy. It’s right up there after healthy.  Above making perfect grades or buckets of money or having several fancy letters added at the end their names, it’s giving our kids the necessary tools to find genuine happiness and well-being that is important. It’s Job One for most parents. We want  to help them build the foundation for fulfilled living.

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Over the weekend, I read this great opinion piece in the NYTimes by psych professor and author Adam Grant on “Raising a Moral Child,” and how, for parents, caring and compassion take priority over success and accomplishments.

“We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Surveys reveal that in the United States, parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups all place far greater importance on caring than achievement. These patterns hold around the world: When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not achievement, but caring.”

I like that Grant doesn’t sugarcoat the next section. He flat-out says that teaching “caring” isn’t a cakewalk. But he takes us through a few studies that show how praise may be the key to helping your kids absorb the “caring” lesson.

“Praising [the children in the study]’s character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.  …  When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.”

Happy | Ms. Mary Mack

But Grant’s piece also addresses the other side of good behavior—when a child does something “wrong” or unkind—and highlights the important distinction between guilt and shame, because each has very different consequences.

There was a lot that I liked here (obvi. See: all the quotes above), but it’s what Grant closed the piece with that earned him the MMM Gold Star (<—super valuable; trust me!). It’s so basic, but so true: Actions speak louder than words. He cites an experiment where children learned generosity and caring not by listening to what a role models said, but by observing what the adult in the situation did. It’s a challenge sometimes, doing the “moral” or good thing, but those young eyes are on us, friends. And they are clocking all of it.

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Let me know your thoughts on the NYTimes piece. Anything that didn’t quite hit the mark for you? Always want to hear your two cents. Leave a comment below.

1 Comment
  • 1

    My husband and I spoke about this for a while on Sunday. It affirmed a lot of what we try (and sometimes fail) to do. Both of my kids are highly empathetic, which I believe is part genetics and part environment. I know they see me being a positive community member, but I am not always generous — and hopefully the balance helps them figure out what works for them.

    What I’m also grateful for is that their school uses the Responsive Classroom approach, which uses the same approach to poor choices and consequences that suit the action.