The Hewitt School hosted Dr. Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project (MCC) of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for a conversation on “Preparing Young People for Caring, Ethical, Engagement and Meaningful Achievement in College, Career, and Life.” Covering topics like moral parenting, building a practice of caring, and helping young people make healthy decisions about college, Dr. Weissbourd engaged the audience with his extensive research and shared stories from his own parenting journey. A Hewitt middle school parent described the presentation as “timely and thought-provoking. It was helpful to hear real, concrete examples of how we can help our children dial down the achievement pressure — from making caring a priority to reflective adult modeling.”
Dr. Weissbourd began his remarks by sharing MCC’s research findings on caring. Through their school climate surveys, MCC learned that only 20% of middle and high school students say caring for others is their top priority, while 80% say achievement or happiness is their top priority. Further, students perceived that their parents prioritized achievement and happiness well above caring about others, and parents assumed other parents felt the same way. The MCC results indicated “an unprecedented focus on achievement and self versus caring for others and the common good” and emphasized that the current fixation on individual happiness, coupled with an almost singular focus on accomplishment, creates a high-stress atmosphere for children. Reacting to Dr. Weissbourd’s presentation of the MCC survey findings and his comments on Hewitt’s survey results, one Hewitt parent noted, “I was happy to hear than Hewitt was one of the few schools surveyed where students valued caring over achievement,” and reflected on the need to continue to “help our children dial down the achievement pressure.”
After laying out the challenges young people face today, Dr. Weissbourd shared practical advice on how parents can help children of different ages reduce stress. His recommendation that parents focus less on achievement and instead nurture their child's passions and curiosity resonated strongly with one upper school parent, who also observed that he “cautioned parents to be mindful of the mixed messages they are sending when they ask about grades and schoolwork.”
Remarking on how achievement pressure increases when it comes to the college application process, a Hewitt upper school parent stated: “Dr. Weissbourd's comments on college admissions were sobering. The competitive pressures that drive students to take on unhealthy amounts of schoolwork and extracurricular activities to build their resume lead to significant levels of stress and anxiety.” Another upper school parent highlighted Dr. Weissbourd’s guidance that “the college search process should be about finding the best fit for the student - not about rankings or validation for the parents. Being meaningfully engaged in college is a strong indicator of ultimate job satisfaction and happiness. He encouraged parents to collaborate to change the dynamic in their communities.”
Referring to insights from his research, as well as personal experience, Dr. Weissbourd presented tips to help parents raise caring and ethical children. One Hewitt upper school parent observed that, “Dr. Weissbourd challenges parents to engage in authentic and meaningful conversations with their kids about caring, kindness, and empathy. Consistently modeling and nurturing these values will provide a blueprint to help raise caring kids. Dr. Weissbourd reminds us that caring and achievement can work in balance.” A Hewitt middle school parent shared that, “In particular, his definition of empathy struck a chord with me. He explained that it’s not how much empathy you may have, but who do you have empathy for? Do we have empathy for those who are outside our immediate circle of family and friends? The goal, he believes, is not to increase empathy, but rather, to expand our and our children’s ‘circle of concern.’”
Following the lecture, Head of School Dr. Tara Christie Kinsey engaged Dr. Weissbourd in a conversation to probe more deeply into these topics. Addressing how to teach children ethical engagement at an early age, Dr. Weissbourd emphasized the importance of parents modeling caring about others who may be different than them in some way. He also called on educators to weave lessons on empathy into academic programs, since children develop a moral understanding at an early age and often are eager to discuss ethical questions. Dr. Weissbourd also appealed to parents to consider equity and moral consequences when making decisions about assisting their children in the college application process, and he encouraged them to be open to other career-building options beyond four-year colleges.
An upper school parent summarized well his call to action for parents: “Dr. Weissbourd wants parents to examine their own priorities and ethical guidelines to make sure they are in line with the hard work of raising moral and socially developed children. As parents we need to be especially mindful of possibly adding to the stress and academic pressures. Let's try to become the ‘parents we mean to be’.”
Resources for Parents and Educators
- Dr. Tara Christie Kinsey’s remarks about the importance of Dr. Weissbourd’s work
- Making Caring Common
- Handout from the event: Parenting — 7 Tips for Raising Caring Kids (for all ages)
- Handout from the event: College Admissions — Red Flags for Parents (for ages 14-18)
- MCC report: Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions
- MCC report: Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process
The Hewitt School convenes events with educational scholars like Dr. Richard Weissbourd to help parents and educators support healthy development for children and young people of all ages. Hewitt highly values partnerships with organizations like Parents League of New York and Riley’s Way, who co-sponsored this event.