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Is Empathy a Predictor of Success?

If you asked your children to rank was most important to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others,” how do you think they would answer? How would you want your children to answer?

A Harvard Graduate School of Education study, “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending about Values,” asked that question to 10,000 middle and high school students. About 80 percent of the students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Only 20 percent of students identified caring for others as their top priority.

The study points out that the words parents say about our values do not align with the actions our children observe and the real messages we send. Although 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and claim that the development of moral character is “very important,” 80 percent of students believe their parents are more concerned with achievement or happiness. Students in the survey were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

This same study surveyed teachers, who also reported that they believe parents value achievement and happiness over empathy and concern for their children.

This is truly a sad commentary; however, it is neither new nor surprising. Back in the 1980s, social commentator Dennis Prager reported on a study that showed that American parents were more concerned with their children’s happiness than with being good.

Caring and empathy require work, practice, and action.  As Prager then pointed out, most people believe they are good because they are not thieves or murderers but that just means they are not  criminals. We need to both model and practice caring and empathy by giving our children opportunities to help others at home, at school, and in the community. We need to place as much emphasis on caring and empathy as we do on success at school.  That is a big part of our “Caught-Ya Gotcha Being a Mensch” program at Schechter. 

The Atlantic magazine, in its article on the Harvard study, “Why Kids Care More about Achievement than Helping Others,” interviewed child psychologist and author Michele Borba. She said, “The study was incredibly important, a wakeup call to parents, a clear indication that we need to reprioritize our parenting agendas ASAP. The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids are those who care about others. They are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, while a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.

“Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health, wealth, and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation of trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.”

Not surprisingly, our Jewish tradition has always understood that from empathy, caring and doing good, comes inner happiness and more success. It took centuries for science to figure that out too! For more information on this topic, please read this recently published article, Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids and Start Raising Kind Ones, by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant.

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