In the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Wharton celebrity psychologist Adam Grant (and his spouse, Allison Sweet Grant) illuminate the side effect of our focus on success. According to the duo, when parents are surveyed, over 90 percent of them say that having a child grow up to be caring is a top priority. Yet, as a Harvard report shows, when you ask the children of those parents, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.
The words aren’t matching the pictures. As the Grant’s point out, “kids learn what’s important to adults not by listening to what we say, but by noticing what gets our attention.”
We want our kids to be successful and caring, but focus too much on the first and create a dearth of the second. Research supports the impact. A University of Michigan study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review showed that college students showed a dramatic drop in exhibiting kindness and empathy over a 30 year period (from 1979 to 2009).
The truth is that success and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, focusing on the latter generates the former. The Grants say that “quite a bit of evidence suggests that children who help others end up achieving more than those who don’t”, and that includes in the workplace. A study by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that empathy is a critical driver of performance and overall effectiveness for a leader.
So you can have your cake and eat it too. You can enable your child’s success by over-investing in teaching kindness. Do so by teaching it as a core value. Here’s the best of the Grant’s advice for doing this along with my own counsel as a parent who, along with my wife, holds kindness as the number one most important value.
1. Praise kindness first, success second.
Remember, your children noticing what you notice is more powerful than them hearing what you say. So keep count. I do. Meaning, I keep a little mental counter and try to complement my daughter for her kindness three times for every time I’d complement her about an achievement. My wife and I also ask our daughter about kindness shown during her day, not just about how she did on a test or some other standard success metric.
Your attention to kindness and success can work in tandem as well. When you’re praising your child for an achievement, note how it was achieved. If it was done so with kindness in tow, double up on the praise.
2. Give them opportunities to practice the choice of kindness.
As the Grants indicate, kindness is a choice, not a chore. My wife and I give our daughter opportunities to choose kindness. We encourage her to show kindness each day and to engage in volunteer activities designed to show it. We pay attention to who she spends her time with, trying our best to encourage more time spent with kids who are imbued with a kind spirit.
It’s sometimes the simplest things that ingrain kindness as a value and have a multiplying effect. For example, we mentioned once to our daughter she should give her restaurant “doggie bag” of food to a homeless person we passed on the street on the way to the car. One time –and now our daughter has taken it up as a habit, on her own.
3. Harp on the cost of the opposite.
I’m not afraid to admit my wife and I are tough when we spot unkind behavior. We won’t let our daughter get away with it without noting the impact the unkindness is having on someone else. This includes very gently talking about how she feels when someone is unkind to her. It’s a teachable moment: “I know it stinks to feel this way, and I hate that for you. Now you’d never want anyone else to feel this way, right?”
To be fair, this should include harping on yourself when you display a lack of kindness, present or past. Sharing stories of when you regret not being kind, or when others weren’t kind to you and the impact it had are powerful ways to show you’re in it together with your child.
When you’re consistent about the importance of showing kindness and just as persistent in pointing out the impact for the absence thereof, you help form habits. And remember, these kindness habits lead to success. So if you want your child to be entrepreneurial or professionally successful, focus on kindness and you’ll get success right along with it.