Recently, I was a guest as a group of “cultural liaison” parents met at a local elementary school. The school had gathered them together to discuss issues affecting students who come from other cultures. The conversation bounced from PTA involvement to communication but towards the end of the meeting the question of values came up. “How is the school helping to teach our children to be good people?” one parent wondered.
I’ve been hearing these types of concerns from parents a lot lately.
“How do I get my children to think about other people instead of themselves?”
“I’m worried that my kid is used to getting whatever he/she wants.”
“Where can my child learn about and practice a set of morals?”
Combine these questions with issues of bullying, cyber bullying, increased isolation because of technology, social media, and an alarming trend starts rising. One recent study shows that today’s students are significantly less empathetic than in the past. Especially since 2000, those studied are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.
One possible reason behind this sudden shift in children’s values has to do with parenting trends. Generally speaking, today’s parents value their children’s happiness above all else, centering the child’s experience in the world. But when that child’s happiness comes up against another child’s happiness, both children believe that they are entitled to be the center and a lack of empathy ensues. Another stunning survey shows that two thirds of children today value their own happiness over “being a good person.”
(Richard Weissbourd, The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, 2010)
This suggests that when parents’ value their child’s happiness and achievements over being kind to others, the child doesn’t have the capacity to think about other people’s feelings. And what ends up happening is that children without empathy end up less happy, regardless of achievements.
But do parents really value happiness over kindness? And if not, why aren’t kids getting the message that treating others well matters just as much as their own happiness?
When the mother at the meeting pointed out this void in a child’s education, the school representatives reacted as expected. Of course they want children to be kind to others, but education also values personal achievement and learning. So when it comes to instilling morality, the school’s capacity is limited to the occasional canned food drive and the expectations to treat others with respect.
As a pastor, a simplistic answer would be to say that religious institutions used to account for at least part of this moral void. Children raised in religious households (regardless of the religion) were typically brought up with some values of putting another’s feelings and experiences ahead of your own. But with the decline in religious participation and the failure of institutions across the board, children are less likely to be exposed to these teachings and parents are less likely to rely on these institutions. But now with the moral gap exposed, nothing has arisen to fill it, and parents are left piecing together elements of their own (probably religious) upbringing with the occasional donation of canned goods for the school food drive.
When we are faced with these big questions around raising our kids, it’s important to remember the role of the larger community. While parenting might be seen as something that happens strictly within the family, there is some truth to the “it takes a village” mindset. Perhaps if we all are demonstrating valuing others’ thoughts and feelings, our kids will get the message. There may not be one moral framework that everyone agrees upon, but certainly we can agree that treating others with kindness adds value to a community.
Partly as a response to this, we are hosting our second annual NeighbARThood Summer Camp July 30-Aug 3, where kids will learn values of justice and empathy through creative arts, games, and activities. Even though pastors are leading it, all of the content is non-religious in nature. It’s just one attempt to be a small voice of goodness in a child’s ears. For more information and to register, visit www.NeighbARThood.com