Monday, June 30, 2014

Achievement Is Just Gravy

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." ~James Baldwin

Ninety-six percent of us say that we are trying to raise ethical, caring children with high moral character, yet eighty percent of our kids say their parents and teachers care more about achievement and happiness than caring for others. As reported in a recent piece in The Atlantic:

In the study, "The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending About Values," the authors point to a "rhetoric/reality gap," an incongruity between what adults tell children they should value and the messages we grown-ups actually send through our behavior. We may pay lip service to character education and empathy, but our children report hearing a very different message.

And here's the irony:

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.

In other words, if you genuinely care about your child's achievement and happiness you'd better jump on that character and empathy bandwagon with both feet.

Unlike the study's authors, I'm not at all surprised by the results of these Harvard Graduate School of Education findings. I've never met a parent or teacher who would admit to placing academics over ethics in their pantheon of values, yet time and again I've witnessed these very adults "teach" precisely the opposite, be it through direct instruction, like forbidding a kindergartner from helping his friend who is struggling on a test, or role modeling, like pushing to the front of a queue or parking in a handicap parking spot because we're in a hurry. This is true on an institutional level as well. When preschoolers discuss big problems like homelessness and hunger, their solutions are the ones we never actually try: give them houses and give them food. As a society, however, despite having plenty of vacant housing and ample excess food, we object to fundamental human kindness by selfishly, and quite convolutedly, fretting that helping others with the basics of food and shelter will make them lazy, that they'll come to rely upon our tax dollars, and that they will be made somehow immoral simply by virtue being the beneficiaries of our own moral behavior.

And so it doesn't surprise me in the least that 8 in 10 American middle schoolers care more about their own achievement and happiness than ethics, character, and moral values. This is not due to a break down in the family, people turning away from the teachings of the church, the media, or some fundamental flaw in one political party or another. No, this is due to each of us and the priorities we demonstrate through our behavior on a day-to-day basis.

So while this study doesn't tell us anything we didn't already suspect, except the hopeful fact that adults do, at least, desire to raise their children to be good citizens, it begs the question: how do we teach character and empathy?

The study's authors are rather vague about this. I know there are curricula out there that purport to support this kind of learning, and I've heard good things about some of them, but it seems wrong to me to rely on the abstractions of worksheets and videos and exercises and formulas to address what is really the most basic of human things: getting along with the other people. From where I sit, the only way to really learn this is the way we learn everything -- through practice. And it's damned hard to practice empathy and character when you spend your day competing with the other people the way we do in traditional schools.

No, the only way to practice these fundamental skills of citizenship is by working with, not in opposition, to the other people. A play-based, or project-based, curriculum is the ideal venue for children to experiment with these vital skills, these orientations and habits we all want for them. When we play together, we must learn to listen, to accommodate, to understand our playmates and their wants and needs. When we undertake projects together, we practice sharing, compromising, and looking at the world from the perspective of our workmates. These are the building blocks of empathy and character.

Every study ever done that looks at the key components of a "successful" life as measured by such things as steady jobs, a stable home life, the companionship of friends, and self-reported satisfaction, finds that it comes from the things that can only be learned by playing together: sociability, working well with others, and motivation. That it also leads to "achievement" is just gravy.

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Anonymous said...

“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
― John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Tom said...

mmm gravy. JK good one Tom. Empathy is one of the five gateways to a child's cooperation!

nvc said...

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." - oh yes.