Of Greater Importance to Teens: Compassion or Achievement?

This headline from a recent newsletter from Dr Robert Brooks, caught my eye. I was familiar with the work of the Harvard Medical School Psychologist and expert author on resilience, motivation and family relationships. Having a strong interest in any new research on the healing power of compassion, especially within the context of the family, I nervously read on.

Sure enough, the results were concerning.

I wanted to know more so I followed up with Dr Brooks and he granted me a short interview.


Kellie: Thanks for your time today Dr Brooks. I have a very dog-eared copy of your book, Raising Resilient Children, on my bookshelf so it is a great pleasure and honor to speak with you today. Dr Brooks, can you please tell me what this study was about and why it concerns you?

Dr Brooks: First, thanks for your kind words about Raising Resilient Children. The study that I highlighted in my newsletter was conducted by psychologist Dr. Richard Weissbourd and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and they asked 10,000 middle and high school students throughout the United States:

“What is most important to you? Achieving at a high level, happiness (defined, in part, as feeling good most of the time), or caring for others?”

Of the three options:

o       48% of students selected high achievement as their top priority followed by

o        30% who selected happiness.

o        Only 22% placed caring for others at the top of their list.

These researchers describe what they label a “rhetoric/reality gap” between what parents and other caregivers say are the values that are most important to teach and model for children and teens and the messages they actually communicate on a day-to-day basis. Most parents assert that a top priority is to develop caring children, ranking it as a more important goal than children’s achievements. However, 80% of the youth involved in the study expressed the belief that “their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” The report notes:

“Our conversations with and observations of parents also suggest that the power and frequency of parents’ daily messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others…..Parents who don’t prioritize their children caring for others can deprive them of the chance to develop fundamental relationship skills, and strong relationships are one of our most vital and durable sources of well-being.”

To answer your second question Kellie, this concerns me greatly and raised questions of how best to nurture compassion and caring in our youth, qualities that I believe are essential at all ages.

Kellie: Thank you Dr Brooks. It certainly is a bit of a wake up call. At Mindfulness 4 Mothers we actively teach practices of self care and Mindful Self Compassion that support kindness and compassion in mothers and flow on to their children. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how mothers reading this might nurture compassion and caring in their children?

 Dr Brooks: Well Kellie, I go into this in more detail in my writings and seminars but the suggestions that are offered by Weissbourd and his colleagues and that I enthusiastically support in my newsletter on this topic were:

Children and youth need:

    1. ongoing opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, sometimes with guidance from adults
    2. to learn to listen closely and attend to those both in their immediate circle and those in their wider circle – to appreciate the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of others
    3. strong moral role models
    4. to be guided in managing destructive feelings

Kellie: How important is it that mothers invest in their own well-being and resilience in order to do this?

Dr Brooks: I have always advocated that if the significant adults in the lives of children do not make certain that they nurture physical and emotional well-being and resilience in themselves, it is more difficult to help children become resilient. That is why after writing several books about resilience in children, I co-authored a book about resilience in adults—The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life.

 Kellie: Thank you Dr Brooks. Did the study have anything to say about developing resilience – one of your favourite subjects?

Dr Brooks: Yes! One of my favourite quotes from the authors of this study, partly because it so concurs with my own research and teaching is:

“Parents who seek to preserve their children’s happiness by constantly protecting them from adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial in their long-term happiness.”

 I have been concerned for years with parents who rush in to keep their children from feeling any discomfort or worries. Such actions actually communicate a message to children that is far different from what parents may intend, namely, “I don’t think you are capable of handling pressures or setbacks so I have to jump in and rescue you.” I am not implying that we should fail to act when our children are faced with situations that may eventuate in dire consequences. Instead, I advise that while it is obvious we should not throw children in ten feet of water if they cannot swim, we should certainly encourage them to enter the water and teach them to swim even if it takes much time, effort, and practice. How can children feel dignified if they are deprived of experiencing genuine success when confronting challenges?

I would like to add that Weissbourd emphasizes that not all of the results in the survey were disappointing.   “While caring and fairness are subordinated to achievement and happiness, they are still important to youth, their parents, and their teachers. . . . Roughly two-thirds of youth listed kindness as one of their top three values and 63% put fairness in their top three. A large majority of youth report their parents have communicated that kindness is important.”





 The study Dr Brooks shared in his newsletter was summarized in the report “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values,” and may be found here: