Doing Well in School Matters…So Does Good Character

When I was in elementary school—way back when—my parents would give me a dollar if I received an A in “Behavior” on our quarterly report cards. They didn’t pay for good academic grades—although it was clear that they expected my very best effort. If that best effort resulted in a B instead of an A in a particular subject, that was OK. But anything less than an A in Behavior was inexcusable.

When I became a parent, I thought about this practice a lot, particularly around the arrival of my kids’ report cards. Never completely understanding my parents’ rationale and feeling funny about rewarding good behavior with cash, I decided not to pay my kids for good conduct—or for good academic grades, for that matter. But results of a recent study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education made me think harder about what, exactly, my parents may have been trying to accomplish.

The startling take-away is that more than 80% of the 10,000 students surveyed ranked achievement or personal happiness over kindness. Yet, in the same study, 96% of parents indicated that it’s important for their children to have a strong moral compass.

The researchers in this study call this a rhetoric/reality gap—a gap between what adults say and what they do. And it sends, at the very least, a mixed message to kids about our core values.

How have we arrived at this place? Is the emphasis on high-stakes causing us to overly focus on scholastic achievement? Are we so intent on trying to ensure that our kids are “happy” that we forget to remind them to be kind—that we forget to talk about (and demonstrate!) that sometimes we must set aside our self-interests for the common good or the good of another?  

Kindness matters. It matters globally, as a healthy society needs people who care about the needs of others as well as their personal happiness.

And it matters to each of us personally. To raise happy children, we must cultivate kindness in them. People can’t be truly happy if cruelty and insensitivity are part of their make-up. To raise successful children, we must cultivate kindness. Kindness and empathy are components of a strong social-emotional IQ, which other research shows, is as critical to success in life as is intellectual IQ.

So how can we let kids know that, yes, doing well in school matters—but so does being a person of good character?  I think that’s what my parents were trying to help me understand. My report card probably had a dozen letter grades measuring scholastic achievement—but only one for conduct. Pulling a dollar out of his wallet every grading period may have been my father’s way of balancing the scale—making sure that the one important grade buried on the back of the report got its due. Playing well with others, respecting authority, being helpful—these things, like math and reading, must be learned.

A friend’s son was recently recognized at 8th-grade graduation with an award for showing leadership in tolerance and kindness. His mother was happy and proud—but also conflicted about how much fuss to make over it. Would a celebration or reward suggest that he went above and beyond, when really he had behaved exactly the way he’d been taught? I think a little fanfare underscores the message that we value being nice as much as we value accomplishment.

Intentionally giving kids opportunities to practice kindness surely helps as well. One parent I know helps her kids organize a charity toy drive now and then, urging them to donate the toys they no longer use. Another parent took her daughter to a free community luncheon to help serve. Another family regularly assists elderly neighbors, who repeatedly try to pay the children for their efforts. But the firm family rule is “no payment,” and the kids learn the difference between a job and service to others.

Of course, the message that speaks the loudest is we adults rolemodeling the behaviors and mindsets we want kids to adopt. When we parents illustrate our words with our own actions, the message is least likely to be misunderstood. Let’s try in every way to say to our kids, “Yes, we want you to be good students, but we also want you to be good people.”

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....