If you’re like most parents, you care more about your own kids than you do a stranger’s kids. In fact, if you didn’t, we would worry. But can we take our love for our kids too far?
Our natural parental instinct is to help our kids succeed, so we try to give them every opportunity and advantage that we can. For parents with economic privilege, this might mean enrolling our children in an expensive private school or hiring a private SAT tutor. It might mean taking them to the museum and the ballet and France. When surrounded by expendable income, the greater danger is not in giving our kids too little, but in giving them too much. As much as we love our own kids, our love and compassion are not meant to be limited to the branches on our family tree. If we give our own kids big head starts, that makes it significantly harder for other kids to keep up.
In late 2018, The Atlantic reported that attending elite colleges does little to nothing to improve the economic outcomes in adulthood of boys who grow up wealthy. “But if you’re not rich, not white, or not a guy, the elite-college effect is huge.” As parents, how can we navigate the tension between our moral ideals of justice and equality and our desire to give our own kids the best opportunities we can?
Think opportunity rather than obligation
We can see how this works in a study out of Harvard Business School. Researchers gave participants difficult ethical dilemmas where there seemed to be no good choice. In one scenario, participants imagined they were the president of a nonprofit working to end child labor in Southeast Asia and they had to decide whether to accept a significant donation by a company that is known to violate child labor laws or risk shutting down the nonprofit’s operations. The researchers then asked participants either, “What should you do?” or, “What could you do?” The “could” group came up with more creative solutions to the dilemma than the “should” group.
When facing moral conflicts, we often think we need to combat our self-interest by focusing our attention on what we should do. However, researchers have found that there might be a better way of dealing with competing moral interests: thinking about what we can do.
When we think about what we should do, we focus too narrowly on trying to pick the best of the options that are immediately before us. When we think about what we could do, however, we don't just limit ourselves to making trade-offs between the obvious choices. Instead, we open ourselves up to the possibility of new solutions.
Instead of asking what we should do to help our kids have the best life possible, what if we began asking what we could do to help them find fulfillment? And furthermore, instead of asking what tradeoffs we should make — whether we should benefit our own kids or all kids — what if we started asking how we can do both? What can we do to not only help our kids become better students and soccer players, but also better neighbors and friends? And how can we do it in a way that doesn’t increase the burden on parents who are already struggling with stress and exhaustion from trying to do it all and the guilt from not being able to?
Challenge the norm of self-interest
Part of what makes it so tempting to give our kids every advantage we can is that we think that this is what all the other parents are doing. The Making Caring Common Project at Harvard found that “[w]hile parents tend to rank caring over achievement as a priority in their own child-raising, parents are about twice as likely to view other parents in their community as prioritizing achievement over caring as they are to view other parents as prioritizing caring over achievement.”
It’s hard to hear stories of wealthy parents paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to lie and cheat their kids into elite schools and not think that the system is rigged. While most of us wouldn’t — and couldn’t — go to such lengths to give our kids an advantage, we all feel the pressure of feeling like we must give our kids whatever opportunities and advantages we can in order to keep up with the parents we’re sure are doing more. This has led to an arms race of intensive parenting that has affected parents across different social classes. Parents are doing more for their kids than ever, yet they are feeling less confident about their kids’ futures.
What’s worse, we’re sending our kids the same message about our priorities. Even though most parents say that developing caring children is more important to them than their children’s achievements, the Making Caring Common Project found that about 80 percent of the youth they surveyed said that their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than about caring for others.
As parents, what can we do to help challenge the success culture? And how can we do it in a way that not only helps kids thrive, but parents, too? We can start by challenging our kids’ expectations of us and our expectations of each other. We can change how — and how often — we talk to our kids and other parents about being kind to one another and standing up to injustices. We can also model better behavior when it comes to how we treat other kids. Do we treat them like they’re valued members of the community or do we treat them like they’re our own kids’ competition?
Expand our notion of what’s best for our kids
Instead of aiming narrowly for our own kids’ success, we need to remember why we want them to be successful, and how we define “success” in the first place. We want them to have a meaningful life, to act justly, to love mercy, and to help make the world a better place. The problem is when we treat success itself as the end goal. When we focus too narrowly on success for its own sake, we can end up pursuing it in ways that make us, our kids, and everyone else worse off.
Society’s most serious problems are complex — ending poverty, fixing unjust systems, curing diseases, and saving the planet from climate catastrophe require an incredible understanding of the world. While giving our kids access to an elite education and extracurricular activities might be helpful, it is not enough to ensure that they will have a meaningful life or make the world a better place. That requires more than just a fancy diploma; it requires character.