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A Mother's Hope for a Better World

Aug 4 2014
The significance of raising good kids in an age of bad news.

For all the autonomy and civil liberties allowed us in the West, few places seem as powerless and irrelevant as a quaint suburban home during times of global civil unrest. The events of July 17, 2014—the day MH-17 was shot out of the sky with 298 souls on board, the day Israel launched its ground offensive into Gaza—drove this point home for me.

Like many others, world events already had me troubled. I'd been dreaming of the Central American mothers sending their children, their babies, on an unaccompanied journey of 1,000 miles through dangerous territory. The macabre massacre of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Kenya left me guilt-ridden over my own relative safety and questioning how efficacious I'd been in stewarding my liberties.

I've long been frustrated by my own impotence to enact meaningful change. What could I do about the desecration of the bodies in the eastern Ukrainian sunflower fields? What were my prayers against the towering history of civil unrest in Israel? I am just a poet, a work-at-home mom in Middle America. My children are young, and the bulk of my energy and life are hidden inside theirs. And though sometimes I worry that it is all for naught and I struggle with guilt over not being able to do more, I know the aim of these years of deep investment in the character of my children is a better, kinder world.

In The New York Times, Wharton professor Adam Grant discussed the research on what it takes to raise a moral child. For all the emphasis we put on wanting our children to be successful, it seems that what parents the world over want most all is to raise thoughtful, caring individuals. One study found that in more than 50 countries, what matters most of all to parents is that our children be benevolent, good, and kind. The trouble is that we're not always able to do that. In an Israeli study of 600 families, researchers found parents who strongly desire to instill moral values frequently aren't able to do so.

Though parents report a desire to raise moral, caring individuals, children aren't getting that message. In a another study of 10,000 middle and high school students in 33 schools across the country, researchers at the Harvard School of Education found that when it comes to what children value, caring ranks a distant third behind both achievement and personal happiness.

Children neither prioritize caring for others nor see key people in their lives, including parents and teachers, as prioritizing it. Only 19 percent of students said that caring was their parents' top priority, while 54 percent reported achievement and 27 percent happiness as their parents' top priority.

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