For Parents in 2020, Raising Kind Kids is Most Important

We want our kids to be happy. We want them to do well. But, according to the first-ever Parents Value Study, most of all, we want them to be forces of good in this world.

two children hugging
Photo: Alexandrena Parker

For anyone with kids, 2020 has been … a lot. Parents faced a global health crisis, an economic collapse, a movement for racial justice—all with no child care. We wrestled 5-year-olds into masks, had hard conversations at the dinner table. We became, quite literally, our children's teachers. But despite our (entirely forgivable) failings, there's one way many of us may yet succeed. And it has to do with our shifting parenting priorities.

This year "has given parents an opportunity to consider who they want to be, and who they want their kids to be," says Tunette Powell, Ph.D., head of UCLA's Parent Empowerment Project. And it turns out that who—or, rather, what—we want them to be is kind.

When we asked 1,227 moms and dads across the country what they value most, as part of the first-ever Parents Values Study, they ranked kindness as the most important trait to cultivate in kids, more critical than intelligence, individuality, or work ethic.

In this moment of crisis, division, and our kids constantly sitting in our kitchen, there are signs that we're putting our ideals into practice. For one thing, more of us are bringing up the hard stuff. "Significant percentages of parents are talking to their kids about racism, about the police," says Richard Weissbourd, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist who directs the university's Making Caring Common Project, which works with educators, families, and communities to teach children about kindness and fairness. "My guess is we'll be seeing more focus on ethical character and on being good human beings. People seem to be getting that we will destroy ourselves if we're so narrowly focused on our own self-interest." Dr. Powell agrees. "I see a shift," she says, "toward teaching a kindness rooted in social justice."

The Parents Values Study also showed that many of us are doing our part, with 70 percent of respondents either sometimes or frequently using their dollars to support companies that give back to the community and 46 percent engaging in charitable work.

That echoes a broader movement to teach kindness to elementary-, middle-, and high-school students that has been brewing across the country. Educators have implemented kindness campaigns to encourage students to do nice things for others proactively. "People are keen to invest their energy in the positive aspects of kids' behavior," says John-Tyler Binfet, Ph.D., a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies kindness in schools and its effects on student well-being. Teachers are ready to focus on what to do, not on what not to do.

Ferial Pearson, Ed.D., a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, has implemented her Secret Kindness Agents project in more than 400 schools worldwide, encouraging kids to plan and carry out anonymous acts of kindness. (One kid rallied friends to attend a school sporting event—girls' basketball—that doesn't draw a crowd; another wrote letters of thanks to the school's custodial staff.) And there are others, like the mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum, produced by education researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has been downloaded by more than 39,000 educators and parents around the world and counting, and involves focusing on breath, learning to tune into feelings, and finding ways to create a cooperative classroom. Harvard's Making Caring Common Project is working with college-admissions offices across the country to send the message that ethical character is important to reduce academic pressure on high-school students and to increase equity in admissions.

Gen Z, which includes everyone born after 1995, is absorbing the message. "The youth give me hope," Dr. Pearson says. "My daughter and nieces and nephews are giving each other affirmations on TikTok. The Parkland kids are fighting for gun reform. Kids are working against climate change."

The time for reinforcing kindness—and not just between individual people, but a broader sense of fairness, equality, and empathy for all—is ripe. We have the opportunity as parents to raise the kindest generation. In this special section of Parents, we're exploring what it takes to raise kids who greet the world with compassion and humanity, as well as spotlighting a few people who are leading by example. Because, researchers say, while part of raising kind kids is encouraging them to show up for people who need them, another big part is being kind ourselves. "We can talk to our kids about all the things that are happening, we can tell them to be kind," Dr. Powell says. "But they're going to do what we show them."

What Matters to Parents Now

We asked, you answered: In our first-ever Parents Values Study, we polled more than 1,000 moms and dads of young children to find out what they want for their kids today and tomorrow—and what hurdles they face in making that happen. Here are the surprising responses.

73% of moms rank kindness as the quality they most hope to instill in their children—more than intelligence (51%) or a strong work ethic (51%).

"I think parents today have a different focus than our parents did. It's not about traditional success anymore; it's about happiness and kindness." —47-year-old mom of one

"With the current global situation, children cannot help but be exposed to the injustices, and to some degree. feel they have the weight of the world on their shoulders to fix it in the future." —35-year-old mom of two

50% of moms believe the most important task of parenthood is showing a child how to be compassionate and kind, placing this above kids learning to be their authentic selves (28%), becoming successful high achievers (16%), or possessing intelligence (6%). Only 38% believed that kindness was what their own parents felt was most important.

Some Of You See A Long Road Ahead

76% of moms and 58% of dads believe today's kids are less kind than those of past generations, pointing to bullying, too much tech, and entitlement as reasons for the shift.

Even So, Some Have Found Reasons To Be Optimistic

"I have shown my daughter how to express love and kindness to everyone, regardless of gender and ethnicity." —31-year-old mom of one

"I think there is a lot more awareness in children about bullying and mental health. They have more information on ways to be kind." —32-year-old mom of three

an adult and child hugging
Melanie Acevedo

Moms Are Doing Their Part To Serve As Role Models

70% of moms believe that the key to raising a kind kid is to lead by example; 18% feel the best strategy is to encourage sharing and cooperation; and 10% say discussing current and historical kindness role models is the most helpful strategy.

39% Of Moms Participated In Community-Focused Events During The Pandemic

"We put out a small shelf and filled it with essentials. People came to get only what they needed. The shelf was empty in two hours, and it made us so happy as a family." —32-year-old mom of two

"We made face masks for others, donated to our local food bank, and sent cards to local EMS workers." —51-year-old mom of two

"We've helped elderly neighbors with food, cooking, and grocery shopping." —50-year-old mom of two

And Many Moms Felt The Pandemic Has Actually Been Good For Their Kids

67% said it's strengthened their family's bond.

36% think it will boost their kids' resilience.

33% felt it's increased their child's gratitude.

Looking Forward

72% of moms say that maintaining close family ties is the most important aspect of their child's future—far more than things like finding romantic love (31%) or earning a high salary (19%).

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as "Generation Kind." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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