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Most parents would say that compassion and generosity are key building blocks to raising successful, well-rounded adults. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, that's not the message kids are getting.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Mari and Joel Barrera are your quintessential do-gooders. They both work in the public sector, sit on multiple boards, volunteer at a soup kitchen and even picked their church because it was most committed to community service. They also say it's a priority to raise their kids to be caring and contributing.
JOEL BARRERA: Talk about your service project, Mila.
MILA BARRERA: Oh, so I'm going to El Salvador this summer.
SMITH: If she had to say whether her parents cared more about her being good or successful, 15-year-old Mila says it'd be close, but she'd say good. Her 13-year-old brother, James, doesn't hesitate.
JAMES BARRERA: Successful.
SMITH: How does he know? 'Cause that's what his folks reward him for and nag him about most.
BARRERA: Most of the pressure is on the school side.
SMITH: For example, his parents let him quit the soup kitchen 'cause he didn't like it, but he gets no such pass on school work. Mila says she got dinner out when she got a B instead of a C, and grown-ups always light up when kids get into a great school instead of a good one.
BARRERA: It's like, parents say, like, it doesn't matter. But it does matter. And that's how you grow up - kind of like, oh, like, Harvard. And, like, I mean they want me to be successful.
SMITH: Mila and James are typical of the more than 10,000 middle and high school students around the nation surveyed by a Harvard researcher. Eighty percent say their parents care more that they're high achieving and happy than caring and good, even though for years parents have been telling researchers the opposite.
RICK WEISSBOURD: What was surprising about the research is a kind of rhetoric-reality gap, and kids are picking up on these mixed messages.
SMITH: Harvard researcher Rick Weissbourd says parents don't realize how their everyday small acts speak louder than their words.
WEISSBOURD: It's, you know, letting kids fudge about their community service in college applications, or it's not requiring kids to reach out to a friendless kid on the playground. I don't think most parents are aware that these quiet day-to-day messages are, in many cases, drowning out other messages about caring and integrity and fairness.
SMITH: Weissbourd's study does not suggest any decline in kids' morality. Indeed, Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at University of Missouri at St. Louis, doubts that's the case.
MARVIN BERKOWITZ: There are quotes going back at least three or 4,000 years in which adults lament that today's youth are the worst, morally, ever.
SMITH: But still, Berkowitz says, it is troubling that for so many kids achievement trumps morality.
BERKOWITZ: There's a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt in which he said to educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.
SMITH: So-called character education is trendy in schools these days. Jesse Tang is principal of Central Queens Academy, a public middle school in New York focused on character and community, where students are recognized for things like kindness and teamwork - not just for straight A's. But Tang's students who took part in the survey answered the same as the rest - that achievement is most important to their parents and their teachers.
JESSE TANG: It was eye-opening to see that achievement and kindness were so far apart. And so I think in terms of what our school is trying to do to buck certain mindsets or ways of thinking, certainly - we are kind of working against a lot of those influences.
SMITH: Especially from colleges who may say they value community service. But, Tang says, kids know what really counts. Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions at Duke University, says it only makes sense that academic institutions care most about grades. and anyway he says it's hard to judge a kid's kindness from an application. But, Guttentag says, colleges could do a little more to incentivize good character.
CHRISTOPH GUTTENTAG: We have work to do in how we talk about what we value and making decisions consistent with what we say. It can have an impact on what students do but maybe not as much as we think.
SMITH: Harvard's Rick Weissbourd agrees. Ultimately it comes down to parents walking the walk and not just talking the talk. A hard thing to do, even for the most committed do-gooders like Mari and Joel Barrera.
BARRERA: Or main job as parents is to launch them into the world. And it's very hard even to stay middle-class. You know, I just want her to be able to make her own way in the world.
SMITH: The good news, Weissbourd says, is that teaching kids to be more mindful of others will also make them better collaborators at work. So besides being the right thing to do, he says, that might end up making kids more successful as well. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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