Do As I Say, Not As I Do? How Adults May Be Sending Kids the Wrong Message About Values

A new study from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, "The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults are Sending About Values," suggests that there is a gap between what adults tell children they should value and the messages they actually send through their behavior.

The study was comprised of two surveys.  The first, developed to learn more about students’ values and their perceptions of others' values, as well as about traditional domains of school climate such as physical and emotional safety, social support, and school connectedness--was administered to 10,000 students from 33 schools in various regions of the country.  The second--a Teacher, Administrator, and Staff survey (n=300)--was developed to reveal how teachers, administrators, and staff prioritize happiness in relationship to caring for others and achieving at a high level.

Findings show that:

  • Young people neither prioritize caring for others nor see the key people around them as prioritizing it: only 22 percent picked caring as their top priority, and nearly two-thirds believed their peers would rank achievement above caring.  
  • Only 19 percent of students viewed caring as their parents’ top priority. 54 percent reported achievement and 27% reported happiness as their parents’ top priority.  
  • Students who didn't prioritize caring and didn't think their parents prioritized caring had very low empathy scores and were less likely to say they would volunteer on a Saturday to help at a school event or tutor a friend.
  • About 80 percent of teachers, administrators, and school staff viewed parents as prioritizing their children’s achievement or happiness above caring. 
  • 62 percent of teachers ranked caring as a higher priority than achievement for their students and 68 percent ranked caring above happiness.  Yet 62 percent of students perceived teachers as prioritizing "doing well academically" as their top value, while only 15 percent of students saw "promoting caring in students" as their teachers’ top priority.
  • Students were over four times more likely to pick hard work than fairness as their top value and, overall, about two-thirds ranked hard work as more important than fairness. In addition, over 60% ranked hard work above kindness.
  • But caring and fairness still count: in choosing among six values, about two-thirds of youth put kindness in their top three, and 81 percent said that their parents clearly communicate that it’s important to be kind to other people. Many youth also expressed altruistic leanings: 38 percent  said they would "definitely" and 48 percent said they would "probably" tutor a friend, for instance.

The researchers argue that these findings might be explained by a rhetoric/reality gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day:
"Our interviews and observations over the last several years also suggest that the power and frequency of parents' messages about achievement and happiness often drown out their messages about concern for others. Some of the ways parents are going overboard to promote achievement and happiness over concern for others are now familiar, including sports parents who harangue coaches for more playing time for their own child, theater parents who campaign for larger roles for their kids, or parents who lobby teachers to give their child more attention. But the more pervasive problem is subtler. It's the steady diet of messages that children get, such as when parents let children quit teams without considering their obligation to the team, or don't require their children to reach out to a friendless kid on a playground, or allow children to talk too much, taking up too much air time with other children or adults. Many other cultural observers have chronicled parents' micromanaging their children’s happiness, including catering to children's every need in ways that can make children concerned about little other than themselves. [...] The good news is that we found substantial evidence that caring and fairness still count. While caring and fairness are subordinated to achievement and happiness, they are still important to youth, their parents, and their teachers."

Read more: resources:
Altruism: A Data-Driven Learning Guide (

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