The Golden Rule, treating others as you want to be treated, is one of the oldest and most universally agreed upon moral principles in human history. We believe the spirit of this ethical maxim has helped to prevent violence, starvation, exploitation, and discrimination.
But according to the 2023 National Parent Survey on Raising Good Kids that we released at Character.org, very few American children today are learning about the Golden Rule. In fact, less than one in five parents (14%) said they use the Golden Rule phrase with their children at all—and over a quarter of all parents (28%) said they are unfamiliar with the meaning of the Golden Rule.
The withering away of the Golden Rule alarms us. While both of us have spent our professional lives fostering character and compassion for others, we are concerned that the findings indicate an erosion of the civic bonds that have held our communities together.
What happened to the Golden Rule?
Our 2023 survey was designed to better understand how parents are responding to a multitude of challenges that previous generations never encountered, ranging from social media to the political polarization facing our nation. We partnered with Ipsos to survey a nationally representative group of over one thousand U.S. parents with children between ages six and 18. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish.
The findings suggest that parents care about character, which we define as “goodness in action.” For example, honesty, responsibility, and respect were the top three core values parents want their children to care most about. In addition, almost seven out of 10 parents (68%) said that they could emphasize the importance of character more intentionally to their children. Not surprisingly, half of all parents are concerned that their children will make the same mistakes they made.
So why aren’t parents talking about the Golden Rule? We’ve spent hours exchanging ideas on the possible reasons that might explain these startling results. We talked to experts. We asked our colleagues, friends, and family members—across generations—for their insight and perspective. Here are five reasons why we think so few parents use the Golden Rule phrase when talking to their children.
1. The Golden Rule is an arcane, “old-timey” term. Every generation has taken its turn throwing certain words or phrases into the dustbin of history. For example, when was the last time you heard the word “chivalry” or the expression “a stitch in time saves nine”? Language evolves and changes. It’s possible that parents today prefer to use other terms and phrases to teach and reinforce the behaviors that embody the Golden Rule (such as empathy, fairness, and respect).
2. Different cultures use other terms. While the wisdom captured in the Golden Rule has long been hailed as a universal principle found in all religions, there is no evidence that the term itself is widely used across all cultures. In African cultures, the idea of respect and reciprocity is enshrined in the term ubuntu. At the core of the Confucian ethic is the term zhongshu (to refrain from actions that may upset or hurt others). And while Al-Ghazali, one of the most influential Muslim scholars, wrote tirelessly about the Golden Rule, there are several other phrases and expressions in Islam that express the importance of justice, compassion, altruism, and being a good neighbor. It’s possible that while the ideal of the Golden Rule may still be important, different cultural and ethnic groups in our nation are increasingly using other terms.
3. We are living in a “me-first” society. Some scholars suggest we’re in the throes of an epidemic of narcissism and that youth are more entitled today. In addition, we know from research conducted by Making Caring Common that while many parents report wanting their children to be “kind and caring,” their kids think what’s most important to their parents is getting good grades. And let’s not forget the impact of social media and how these platforms trigger “social comparison” emotions—such as jealousy and envy—far more than expressions of kindness or helping. It’s possible the scarcity of the Golden Rule is because our American society has become more self-centered.
4. The taproots of “community” are disappearing. The book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam describes the collapse of what has historically been a hallmark of American society: our close-knit communities. Putnam documents that Americans in the 21st century have far fewer connections and social networks than previous generations. Fewer block parties. Fewer people attend houses of worship. Fewer children participate in Little League, the Girl Scouts, and numerous other civic institutions. In short, it’s possible the bonding and social connections that have historically been essential to the practice of the Golden Rule are dramatically eroding across the United States.
5. The problem is “other people’s children.” We asked parents in our survey about the behaviors of their children, as well as children in general. While almost four out of 10 parents (38%) reported that their child had lied to them within the past six months and 42% said that their child had recently been disrespectful to others, parents seem to be far more concerned about the behavior of other people’s children. Nine out of 10 believe that children today do not treat others with respect. As high as 85% say that children today are not honest, and 83% say that children today only care about themselves. It’s possible the reason why parents do not talk to their children about the Golden Rule is that they have a blind spot and think the problem is other children, not their own.
The future of the Golden Rule
Why does it matter that the Golden Rule may be disappearing if children are still being taught at home and at school the principles of empathy, fairness, and respect? Our deeper concern is whether these taproots of the Golden Rule are also endangered. These are the core values and character strengths that bring to life the Golden Rule. For example, one study found that when students thought about the Golden Rule, it reminded them of the importance of love, respect, and helping others. We can’t accept a future where these seeds of goodness have also been thrown into the dustbin of history.
With that in mind, we offer two calls to action to address the concerns we have raised about the future of the Golden Rule.
We know that there are scores of K–12 schools across the United States that emphasize the importance of respect, empathy, and caring. We encourage each of these schools to develop an intentional effort to raise the visibility and awareness of the Golden Rule, including providing parents and families with resources and support to teach and model the Golden Rule at home.
In addition, the Golden Rule needs a rebrand. A new story. A new logo. A new tagline. Well-known athletes and musicians eager to give it a voice. We call on a wide range of U.S. businesses and civic groups to come together and collaborate on a nationwide effort to rebrand the Golden Rule. Let’s make the Golden Rule cool.
We’re committed to creating a future where people of all ages are treating others as they want to be treated. The Golden Rule elevates the ideals of selflessness and love essential to a future grounded in the pursuit of justice, peace, and compassion. We hope you will join us in bringing the promise of the Golden Rule to life.
We welcome hearing from you about other reasons why parents may not be talking to their children about the Golden Rule. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.