Achievement? Happiness? Compassion?
In a study conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers asked 10,000 middle and high school students throughout the United States: “What is most important to you? Achieving at a high level, happiness [defined, in part, as feeling good most of the time], or caring for others?” Of the three options, 48% of students selected high achievement as their top priority, 30% selected happiness, and only 22% placed caring for others at the top of their list.
Those answers are starkly different than what parents say they feel about their children. In fact, 80% of parents rank “caring for others” as the top value they wish their children possess. So, how do we bridge this gap between what parents say they want for their children and the values the children actually internalize? Robert Brooks, the author of Raising Resilient Children, suggests the following steps:
Provide opportunities for chesed. Get your children out there, helping those less fortunate or those in need.
Listen closely. See the world through your children’s eyes. If you have empathy, you can better help them care for others.
Be a strong moral role model. If you show that you are committed to living ethically and taking care of others, your child will be more likely to follow suit.
Help manage destructive feelings. Destructive feelings shouldn’t be ignored; they should be worked through.
How does caring for others connect to resilience? Well, the whole way that we parent is connected to resilience. One of the findings of the Harvard study was that “Parents who seek to preserve their children’s happiness by constantly protecting them from adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial in their long-term happiness.” That is all about resilience.
Dr. Brooks explains, “If we examine our parental goals, it would not be an over-simplification to conclude that realization of these goals require that our children have the inner strength to deal competently and successfully, day after day, with the challenges and demands they encounter. We call this capacity to cope and feel competent resilience.
“Resilience embraces the ability of a child to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others, and to treat oneself and others with respect. Numerous scientific studies of children facing great adversity in their lives support the importance of resilience as a powerful force. Resilience explains why some children overcome overwhelming obstacles, sometimes clawing and scraping their way to successful adulthood, while others become victims of their early experiences and environments.”
Another way of describing resilience is grit. Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, explains that character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. And, character is just what children need to succeed.
Persistence. Persistence is about knowing what you want and not stopping until you get it. Remember Watty Piper’s The Little Engine that Could? While the little blue engine is the smallest of all the engines, she is the only one who agrees to help the dolls and toys over the mountain. Though it is unclear whether such a small engine can succeed, the engine repeats to herself, “I think I can. I think I can.” And eventually makes it to the other side of the mountain.
It is just this persistence or perseverance that we need to teach our children. When struggling, we need to push ourselves in order to reach our goal. Like all non-cognitive skills, persistence cannot be taught through a worksheet. As parents, we can be role models for our children and teach them that when things are tough, they still need to keep trying. Setting our own goals (whether they are fitness, educational, or personal) and then sharing our triumphs and failures with our children will teach them that it is okay to fail and then keep on working towards a goal. Parents and educators need to model persistence and encourage second, third, and twentieth tries.
Grit. Grit goes hand in hand with persistence. Children who fail and then pull themselves up and start again are exhibiting grit. They know that though it is painful and their knees are scraped, they can try again. Without grit, there is no persistence – and every failure is final.
Self control. A famous study in the 1960s, often dubbed the “marshmallow study,” tested children on their self-control. The very young children were handed a marshmallow and told that they could get a second one if they waited until the researcher came back in the room in order to eat the first. Some children ate the first one right away and did not receive a second, but others sang or talked to themselves in order to avoid eating the marshmallow. Eventually, when the researcher returned, those children received a second marshmallow. The researchers then followed those children for the next several decades.
What the researchers found astounded them. Those children who had managed to control themselves in order to get the second marshmallow had more successful marriages, careers, and lives in general. The ability to control themselves and delay gratification ended up allowing them to set goals and achieve them even if it meant waiting a bit along the way. Helping children set goals and then working with them to achieve them is an excellent way to develop self-control.
Curiosity. Curiosity is about asking questions and wanting to know how the world works. The truth is that you cannot “teach” curiosity. You can, however, model curiosity when your children are little – asking your own questions and working with him to look them up. You can also answer their questions, regardless of how silly or frequent they are. These questions will get longer and more important and as time goes on they will develop skills to answer them themselves.
Self–confidence. Self-confidence is about believing in yourself. In order to take risks, fail, and continue again, you need to be confident that you are strong and capable. Part of self-confidence comes from success – and part of it comes from overcoming failure. As parents and educators, we have to let children fail when they deserve to fail in order to help them learn to overcome that failure.
It might be that we need to help our children gain resilience (or grit) and then they will have it all: achievement, happiness, and compassion.