America’s caregivers find themselves in the middle of a kindness crisis, new research suggests: More than two-thirds of parents often worry that the world is “an unkind place for my child.”
Fully 70% of parents find that the world is unkind to their kids. Among teachers, the figure is 86%, according to new research by Sesame Workshop, the New York-based non-profit behind Sesame Street.
The findings, out Thursday, come from a wide-ranging survey of 2,002 parents and 500 teachers. They hold a few surprises. Among them:
58% of teachers say most children today are disrespectful;
67% of parents say most children are disrespectful;
52% of teachers say being kind “is not a priority” to most people.
“There is this feeling (that) we’re not in a kind place at the moment, although at the individual level, parents do feel that their children are kind and that they are doing a good job in that way,” said Jennifer Kotler Clarke, a developmental scientist and vice president of research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop.
Kotler Clarke called the findings “worrisome” but added, “I felt better that people believed in the importance of kindness,” even if they don’t necessarily feel it’s a priority for others — 73% of parents said it’s more important for kids to be kind to others than to be academically successful.
But dig deeper into the findings and a fascinating picture begins to emerge, suggesting that parents hold at least a little blame for the unkindness they decry. In the survey, researchers asked a series of either/or questions, including this one: “Which is more important, having manners or having empathy?
Manners won, in a landslide: 58% of parents said manners were more important. Only 41% said empathy was more important (1% said they didn’t know).
Part of the problem, Kotler Clarke suggested, is that many parents simply may not be familiar with the word “empathy” in their everyday lives, confusing it with “sympathy” or misunderstanding it altogether.
But a bigger problem may be parents’ inability to dig deeper and think about what makes a good person, Kotler Clarke suggested.
“We really need to talk about the deepness that comes with behaviors around kindness,” she said. “It’s not just the surface, smiling around people and opening a door, saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ all of which are important. But it doesn’t end there. It needs to be even deeper than that. In fact, sociopaths and bullies can have very good manners and be polite.”
The survey took place last summer and the researchers didn’t ask about whether the 2016 presidential election has had an effect on kindness — teachers have recently complained about what a few observers are calling the "Trump effect," with young children bullying minority and immigrant children, among others.
“Our target audience is 3 feet tall and they certainly don’t vote,” said Jeffrey Dunn, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop. He said the researchers actually began thinking about kindness well before the 2016 race began — he and others were concerned as they saw news accounts pile up about free speech and, in a few cases, hate speech, on college campuses. Dunn said it’s hard not to notice “increasing intolerance” in our society.
The new findings, he said, show that “that there’s some heavy lifting to do on the kindness side.”
With the findings in hand, he and others said Sesame Workshop wants to start a "national conversation on the topic. Sesame plans to offer online tools to parents and educators to teach kindness, including a new website on the topic and a YouTube playlist of clips. It’ll also build the upcoming season of Sesame Street around themes of kindness and empathy.
“I think children can learn these skills,” Kotler Clarke said. “Children are primed for all of this, and if you give them explanations and really work on having them really understand what it might be like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, they’re up for the challenge.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo