Achievement vs. empathy in young people

July 9, 2014

By hammersmith

Two weeks ago in The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey reported on a study from the Making Caring Common project at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. The study found that a vast majority of surveyed middle- and high-school students “value aspects of personal success—achievement and happiness—over concern for others.”

This preference persists despite the fact that parents and teachers declare that they are trying to send a different message. The study authors write that “Most parents and teachers say that developing caring children is a top priority and rank it as more important than children’s achievements.” And it’s easy to understand why. Lahey quotes an email from child psychologist Michele Borba:

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.

But the message parents and teachers want to give isn’t getting through. On the contrary, write the study authors, “80% of the youth in our survey report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.”

Parents are surely only looking out for their children’s best interests when they signal the preeminent importance of achievement, but the study authors argue that those signals don’t help. A separate study, they note, found that “children from affluent communities who are subjected to intense achievement pressure by their parents don’t appear to outperform other students.”

It would be natural to assume that as we assess Flinn Scholarship applicants, we are only looking at achievement. After all, the word “achievement” appears on the Flinn Scholars Program website much more often than the word “empathy.”

But we are, in fact, looking for candidates who are both high-achieving and caring. Students who sublimate caring to achievement, explain the study’s authors, “are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behavior, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest.” Not exactly Flinn Scholar material.