If you were asked to rank in order of importance academic achievement, happiness, and care for others as priorities for our young people today, how would you respond?

If you’re like most parents and teachers in the U.S., you would place the highest importance on care for others—a very worthy choice and one that science suggests can actually increase the other two outcomes.

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Yet, a recent U.S. survey of 10,000 middle and high school students conducted by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project revealed that students believe their parents and teachers prioritize academic achievement and happiness over caring.

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In other words, students are receiving the message from adults that personal success is more important than concern for others. With that being the case, it becomes easier to understand why cheating is rampant among students.

This is a wake-up call for us adults. Even though we may view ourselves as very caring people, and think we’re promoting this value to our young ones, somewhere there’s a disconnect that we need to remedy—and the not-so-easy answer lies within ourselves.

The complexity of care

If getting adults to “walk the talk” of care was as easy as reminding them that they need to do so, then our problem would be solved. But care is very complex, impacted by things such as cultural beliefs and attachment security, and making it a priority in our and our children’s lives sometimes requires us to deeply introspect on how care manifests or not in daily life.

For example, in a game called “Compassion Continuum” designed by compassion-expert Brooke Dodson-Lavelle, adult participants are asked how much compassion they would feel for their child who gave a speech in school and failed. Most people respond that they would feel a lot of compassion. Then they are asked how much compassion they would feel for another child who had given a speech and failed, but who had also bullied the participant’s own child. As you can imagine, the responses are all over the board—a perfect example of how caring for others is not always black and white and perhaps one reason why our youth, who are equipped with hyper-sensitive radar for hypocrisy, are getting mixed messages from adults.

Ultimately, our view of care is wrapped up in who we are—it’s part of our identity. And, according to Harvard professor and adult development expert Robert Kegan, changing part of one’s identity requires transformation at our deepest core. While the process is neither fast nor easy, it can yield great rewards.

Changing our view of care

After decades of research and practice in adult learning, Kegan posits that in order to truly change, we have to become aware of our unconscious emotions, habits, and beliefs that run our lives so that we can instead reflect on these internal constructs and change them if necessary.

But this unearthing process can elicit anxiety. For example, many parents and teachers know something has to change with the staggering pressure our students are under to succeed academically, particularly as this pressure is leading to an increase in mental illness.

  • Need more ideas on how to cultivate caring children?

    Click here for a downloadable, reader-friendly list of research-based suggestions from Harvard's Making Caring Common Project.

However, the thought of having to change our beliefs about success fills many of us with anxiety because it would require us to consider our own identity around success. A parent who is concerned about the academic pressure on their child may be forced to examine the belief that getting into a top university will lead to a materially successful life. Upon deeper self-examination, the parent may be surprised to find that this belief is supported by other beliefs such as a materially successful life is the only way a child will be secure and happy in this world. And if a child is not secure and happy, then the parent has potentially failed in their parental responsibility.

The depth of this kind of reflection may be too threatening for many of us. Thus, we unconsciously manage this anxiety by continuing on with status quo. And, hence, our children might get the message that success is more important to us than care.

So how do we start aligning our priority of care with our actions? The process that Kegan and co-author Lisa Lahey outline in their book Immunity to Change is a multi-step approach, the explanation of which would require more room than I have in this blog. However, I can offer these few suggestions based on their work:

1. Start by reflecting on the care you give and receive in your life—or lack thereof—in order to bring to conscious awareness how much care impacts you. Examine how you care for yourself and how you and your loved ones—including your pets—care for each other. Then expand this view to include the care between you and a stranger on the street, the grocery clerk, and/or a difficult work colleague. Now broaden your view of care to examine care at a societal level, from business practices to childcare options to equity to gender roles to political systems.

Did you find yourself getting emotional at any point in this reflection? For example, did a situation that lacks care make you feel angry or scared or sad? If so, why? Kegan and Lahey state that underlying every challenging situation or behavior is an “emotional ecology” that we must explore in order to understand where our potential limitations lie, and their book outlines a very specific and in-depth process to do so. Only when these limitations that have been driving our actions without us realizing it are brought to conscious awareness can we start to change them.

And once you’ve identified these limiting behaviors, Kegan suggests that instead of trying to defend them, admit them with all “their embarrassing glory”. I would also recommend practicing self-compassion, realizing, as self-compassion expert Kristin Neff posits, that you’re not alone. All of humanity struggles with challenging internal constructs.

2. Ask yourself if there is enough at stake to warrant a change. According to Kegan and Lahey, the process of transformation at this depth can be very challenging, so we have to be sure that we’re willing to try. They have found that people are motivated to change for several reasons, including: if they don’t change, something or someone they love will be harmed; not reaching a goal has become impossible to live with; or there is “deep discrepancy” within themselves.

For instance, a teacher or parent who learns that at the root of a child’s anxiety and panic is the child’s belief that they are loved and accepted only when academically successful may be motivated to make some radical changes in their own behavior and beliefs.

3. Test out new ways of being. Once you have identified a core limitation, then Kegan and Lahey recommend trying another mode of behavior that acts against this limitation. For example, if you responded with anger to a bullying situation similar to the one described above—anger that was perhaps motivated by your own experience of being bullied—you might try acting compassionately towards the bully and see what happens. If you notice a positive change, then keep doing it.

The reward for all this inner work, according to Kegan and Lahey, is a release from the anxiety caused by the denial of our unconscious emotions, beliefs, and habits. “You [will be able to] scan the world,” write the authors, “for more promising possibilities and bring to your own living a deep restfulness that you may never before have known.”

By examining and shifting our beliefs and practices of care, we may find that our relationships with ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, strangers on the street, and perhaps the rest of the world are transformed into something we could never have imagined—and we may become more successful and happier as a result.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a begger; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” And I would add that part of that restructuring includes ourselves.

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