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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

Do We Value Caring?

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Students believe that their parents and teachers put a higher priority on achievement than they do on caring. How can we convey our priorities more clearly?

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Sara's best friend Jessica was a proud, independent teenager who was normally exceptionally calm under pressure, so Sara was surprised when Jessica unexpectedly called her late on a Thursday night. Jessica was in tears. Her parents were fighting again, and Jessica thought she heard the D word (for divorce) mentioned. Jessica really wanted to talk.
Sara wanted to help Jessica, but she also knew that she needed to study for her big history test the next day. Her guidance counselors, her parents, and her teachers seemed to be reminding her almost daily that she needed to boost her grades. Sara talked to Jessica for a few minutes before telling her that she needed to get back to work. Jessica seemed hurt and angry, but Sara told herself that they could catch up later—after the test was over.

The Perception Gap

Research suggests parents in the United States highly value their children "being honest, loving, and reliable" and say it's more important to raise children to be caring than high achieving (Bowman, Hunter, Dill, & Juelfs-Swanson, 2012; Suizzo, 2007). Our own research indicates that teachers also prioritize caring over achievement in students, and schools typically trumpet values such as caring, honesty, and fairness. These values are posted on walls, reiterated in assemblies, and included in mission statements.
Our research, though, also points to a troubling reality: There's a large gap between the values parents and teachers espouse and the messages they actually convey to children day-to-day. Most students report that their parents or teachers place a higher priority on their achievement than on whether they are caring. Nor is being caring a top priority for students themselves.
That's no trivial matter. When children prioritize caring, they are far more likely to act altruistically even when it conflicts with their self-focused desires and goals. These students are more willing to help a friend like Jessica who is struggling with a family crisis, even if it might slightly hurt their grade. They're more likely to help a classmate prepare for a test, even if the test will be graded on a curve and helping might reduce their own grade, or to pass the ball when they'd prefer to shoot a basket themselves. They're more likely to stand up for a bullied peer, even if it might make them less popular. In short, they're more able to sacrifice at important times, to put other people's needs ahead of their own. Because they're motivated to care, they're also more motivated to develop empathy and other key social and emotional skills.
Further, developing the capacity to care is not only key to children becoming moral, but also often a key to happiness. The ability to tune in to and care for others is at the heart of close relationships, including friendships, romantic relationships, and parent-child relationships. And these relationships are perhaps our most important and durable source of lasting happiness (Carter, 2010; Lyubomirsky, 2008; Vaillant, 2012).

Mixed-Up Priorities

During the last 10 years, we've conducted research to understand what values students prioritize and what values they believe the influential adults and peers in their lives prioritize. In 2013–14, we surveyed 10,000 diverse middle and high school students from across the United States. Among many questions, we asked students what was most important to them: "caring for others," "achieving at a high level," or "being a happy person (feeling good most of the time)." We also asked students to imagine how their parents, their teachers, and their school peers would rank these values. We conducted scores of individual interviews and led numerous conversations with groups of students, parents, and teachers to dig deeper into these questions, including asking students how they define happiness, caring for others, and achievement.
Almost 80 percent of students picked achievement (48 percent) or happiness (30 percent) as their top choice. Only about 22 percent selected caring for others. Comments included,
  • "If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others."
  • "Happiness is my primary goal in life. Achievement and moral goodness are only important if they make me happy."
  • "I think achieving at a high level is at the top, because I want to be successful and make my parents proud."
  • "I think that achieving at a high level is the most important because I want to work hard to be noticed and go to college to get a good job in the future. I honestly do care for others, but it's not the most important."
Most parents feel differently, according to research. For example, a study by Suizzo (2007) found that most parents, across racial and ethnic groups, said they value caring or "benevolence" more than achievement in their children. In a 2012 study (Bowman et al.), 96 percent of parents surveyed viewed developing moral character in children as "very important, if not essential."
But our findings suggest that young people aren't buying it. When asked what their parents prioritize, about 80 percent of young people viewed their parents as valuing their children's achievement (54 percent) or happiness (27 percent) above caring. Only 19 percent viewed caring as their parents' top priority. Students were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school." If parents really value caring over achievement, they don't seem to be conveying that message to their children.
There appears to be a similar gap between teacher and student perceptions. Sixty percent of the 300 teachers we surveyed ranked their students being caring as more important than their achievement, and 68 percent prioritized students' caring over students' happiness. Yet when we asked students what they thought the adults in their schools most valued, only 15 percent saw "promoting caring in students" as their teachers' top priority. The majority, 62 percent, thought teachers most valued academic success.
It's certainly understandable that students perceive teachers as mainly focused on academic achievement. That's typically how teachers' jobs are formally defined. But here again is a gap between what adults are espousing and what children are hearing.

Lost in Translation

Why this gap between teachers' and parents' espoused values and what students hear them say? In our research, we've observed that parents and teachers frequently send powerful messages about the importance of achievement and happiness, often drowning out their messages about concern for others.
Many teachers' interactions with students focus almost exclusively on academic content, and students can pick up numerous signals that grades and performance on standardized tests are the top priorities for adults at school. Parents, too, often tacitly elevate achievement or happiness over concern for others. Parents often ask about students' quiz performance before asking about the rest of their day, are more excited when their children win a most valuable player award than a sportsmanship award, or encourage children to engage in community service not for its own sake but to enhance their college prospects.
It's not that adults and students don't value caring; it's just that caring too often appears to be subordinate to achievement or happiness. Almost half of the young people in our sample ranked caring second, and 45 percent imagined that their parents would rank caring second. Additionally, 81 percent of youth in our sample agreed that their parents clearly communicate that it's important to be kind to other people. Some students revealed a deep commitment to caring, with comments like, "If I am a good person who cares about others, then in my mind I am already happy," and "Making others happy will make you happy, and this is achievement in and of itself."
It is also important to clarify that there are significant race, class, and culture differences in the meaning of happiness, caring, and achievement. For many low-income and working-class teens especially, for example, achievement is about caring—it's about supporting their families and communities.
The challenge for teachers and parents, then, is not to drum up a commitment to caring from scratch, but to make caring a priority.

Developing a Commitment to Caring

When we share our survey findings, administrators and teachers are often surprised and concerned. They ask, "How can we get students to care more about one another?" "How can we convince students that we value their capacity to care?" and "How can we balance the academic rigors of school with our desire to foster good people and citizens?"
Every school can take a number of steps to show students that caring and empathy matter and to make these values live and breathe in students' day-to-day lives.
To begin, teachers can return to the ethical commitments that sparked their motivation to teach. Schools might structure professional development time to allow teachers to revisit their goals for entering the teaching profession and discuss how they might express their commitment to children's moral, social, and emotional development in their teaching. Further, administrators can engage teachers in brainstorming strategies for how they might explicitly talk with students about the gap between their beliefs and students' perceptions and how they might enable other staff and students to hold them accountable for the values they espouse.
At the same time, school staff can review schoolwide norms and practices to assess whether they elevate caring as a priority and are consistent with their stated values. Are many students sitting alone in the cafeteria? Are transitions to buses after school safe and orderly? Are hallway monitors respectful, and do they intervene when they observe students bullying another student?
School staff can also consider creating new norms and activities that express a commitment to compassion, empathy, generosity, and fairness. These norms and activities can be low-burden, no-cost, and often fun.
Simple practices and routines can make a large difference. For example, the principal can set the tone for caring by knowing every student's name and warmly greeting each student as he or she enters the school building. Teachers can model how to care for others when they strive to understand what each student hopes for, worries about, dreams about, finds funny, and loves. Because a caring, respectful relationship with a teacher is key to cultivating caring in students, a teacher might also review his or her class list a few times a year, and ask these questions about all students: "Does this student trust and respect me? If not, what might I do to repair the relationship?" Teachers can also incorporate simple mindfulness and compassion exercises into transition times.
Schools can promote a culture of care by giving students more opportunities to connect with and learn about others in the school, especially those who may seem different or foreign to them. These strategies might include a "mix it up" day in the cafeteria in which students are assigned seats that encourage them to get to know new people. Students can interview and create biographies of other students or staff who are strangers to them. Here are two additional strategies.

Circles of Concern

The Circle of Concern exercise is designed to challenge students to think about whom in their school and community they regularly care about and who is off their radar. Students are given a template with three concentric circles, with the smallest titled "You Are Here," the next titled "Circle of Concern," and the largest titled "Outside Your Circle of Concern." They then reflect on who is in their circle of concern—people they regularly think about and care about (such as friends, family, and so on)—and who in the school community is not currently in the circle. They also think about how to expand their circles of concern.
This activity can be used to guide individual written reflections as well as whole-class discussions. For example, the teacher might ask students to respond to the written prompt, "Pick one or two people you listed as being outside your circle of concern. Why are these people (or groups) outside your circle of concern? How might their being outside your circle of concern affect them? How might it affect you? How might it affect the community as a whole?" The Circle of Concern exercise is most effective when it's used regularly (perhaps during an advisory period) so that conversations about relationships and community become normal practice.

School Climate Committee

In middle and high school, students themselves can play a powerful role in building a caring community. Students have insiders' knowledge of problems and issues in the school culture. They often have the best ideas about how to resolve these issues and the most leverage with their peers.
Schools can either use the existing student council or create a separate school climate committee to lead initiatives to create a more inclusive and caring school. It's recommended that two widely respected adults take an active role in forming and facilitating the committee. The committee should recruit a range of students as leaders, including those who are socially prominent (and therefore have leverage) and those who are socially marginalized. Once formed, the committee might meet weekly or biweekly for the first few months of the school year and at least biweekly after that.
One valuable committee task is to gather information through school climate surveys and to brainstorm strategies to address identified issues. For example, the school climate committee might review the results of a student survey and find that many students indicate they do not have an adult they feel comfortable talking to at school. In response, the committee might implement such initiatives as student-teacher lunch days, which provide a casual and informal atmosphere for students and teachers to get to know one another outside the classroom.

Walking the Talk

These strategies can move us closer to what both teachers and parents say is essential—children who grow into adults who balance their own concerns with concern for others; who are willing to sacrifice at pivotal moments; and who have real commitments to creating a more just, caring world. In our conversations and research with parents, educators, and many other adults, we pick up deep worries about the degree to which achievement and happiness have become the main goals of child raising, usurping the value of caring for others and promoting the common good. In the face of this trend, it's time for all of us to walk our talk.

Bowman, C. D., Hunter, J. D., Dill, J. S., & Juelfs-Swanson, M. (2012). Culture of American families executive report. Charlottesville: Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia. Retrieved from www.iasc-culture.org/survey_archives/IASC_CAF_ExecReport.pdf

Carter, C. (2010). Raising happiness: 10 simple steps for more joyful kids and happier parents. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin.

Suizzo, M. A. (2007). Parents' goals and values for children: Dimensions of independence and interdependence across four U.S. ethnic groups. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 38(4), 506–530

Vaillant, G. (2012). Triumphs of experience: The men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

End Notes

1 The full survey report, The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values, is available at http://sites.gse.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/making-caring-common/files/mcc_report_6.30.14.pdf.

2 Circles of Concern, School Climate Committees, and other strategies are described in detail, with step-by-step guidance, in the Toolkit for Educators on Making Caring Common's website.

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