Sure, it would be nice if your kid grew up to be a doctor or scientist or the next Mark Zuckerberg. But studies show that across the board, mostly parents want their kids to grow up to be kind, caring and ethical.
A survey of parents in the United States from varied ethnic backgrounds shows that all groups — from European to Asian to African — consider compassion more important than achievement, and when people from 50 countries were asked what values mattered most to them, caring again outranked accomplishment, points out Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” in the New York Times.
But even if we value benevolence and generosity, how is it taught? In his research, Grant finds that studies with genetic twins show that no more than half of our tendency for caring comes from natural temperament, so a lot of that behavior is learned. One of the secrets to that kind of learning, he finds, is praise.
In one study, researchers broke children into groups to receive different types of praise. One group, when given the opportunity to share, was praised for its actions: “That was a nice thing you did.” The other group was praised for its character: “You must be a nice and helpful person.”
When observed again weeks later, the children who had been praised for character and identified as “helpers” were much more giving.
“When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us,” writes Grant, who notes that character, especially in young children, is linked to their forming identity and sense of self.
Other old-fashioned rules of parenting, like setting boundaries, also contribute. Nurturing, loving parents provide a good model, but if they don't place firm limits the result can be children that are self-centered, says Janice Cohn, Ph.D., author of “Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World,” in Parenting magazine.
Other suggestions include teaching kids to help — with pets, other siblings or chores, according to the Parenting article, and teaching manners, which helps kids to “co-exist harmoniously” from a young age.
“Habits like this can help form character,” Julia Gatta, an associate professor of pastoral theology at the University of the South, told Parenting. “There's another person at the other end of the relationship who has feelings and deserves respect.”