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Here’s a quiz. Which of these do you care about most with regards to your middle school or high school child?

Certainly each of these is important, but you can only pick one. Which one do you want most for your kid right now?

Got your answer? Well, no matter what you chose, here’s what 10,000 teens from 33 different middle and high schools around the U.S. think their parents care about the least: caring for others. Fully 80% of teens think their parents care most about kids’ achievement or kids’ happiness. Only 20% think their parents, first and foremost, want them to be caring people.

In addition, that same 80% of teens mirror what they think their parents want: they also care most about achievement or being happy. Few teens care most about being compassionate and helpful to others.

Harvard researcher Rick Weissbourd believes that parents send mixed messages. They may talk a good game when it comes to community service, volunteering, and participation in religious and charitable efforts but what they really reward are good grades and school honors. What parents bend over backwards to do is ensure their children’s happiness. One student said that his parents permitted him to give up helping out at a local soup kitchen when it cut into his studying. The priorities were clear.

College admissions forms ask about community service and many high school students volunteer in the community in order to have something that is worthy of note from admissions officers. By and large, college admissions, especially to select schools, depends on grades, courses taken, academic honors, and maybe athletic or other extracurricular achievements far more than on evidence a prospective student is a good and caring person.

Despite the emphasis in many schools on character education, being a person of good character often means only that a teen doesn’t have a police record. Parents, schools and colleges alike really don’t pay much attention to caring, compassion, and public service.

If it matters to you that your child grow into a helpful, responsible person – and I hope it does! – then here are some tips for making your interest in raising caring kids more clear to the people that matter – your children themselves.

One word of caution. To raise a really caring child, it’s important your child get to choose her cause. While having a family cause, one that everyone in the household supports and volunteers in together, seems like a nice idea, it doesn’t do much to inspire compassion in children. Like most other aspects of family and parent opinion, teens are likely to flee from a family cause at the first opportunity and not look back. Instead of imposing a family interest, encourage your teen’s sense of justice and moral outrage at the need he sees around him and let him choose to care.

Choosing to care. It’s important. Make sure your children know it’s important to you.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.