If you watched Coco Gauff’s third round loss in the US Open on Saturday, chances are you won’t remember the score or many details about the match itself; you’ll mostly remember how Naomi Osaka consoled the 15-year-old after her defeat.
And if you’re Osaka’s parent, you should be more proud of the kindness and empathy she showed than the big win she earned. Just two days before the sweet moment between the athletes, writer Anna Nordberg wrote for the Washington Post that parents put too much focus on their kids developing tenacity or grit and not enough focus on developing conscientious characteristics.
Clinical psychologist Lisa Damour tells Nordberg that what actually makes adults happy barely correlates with academic or professional success:
What it does correlate with is quality of relationships, a sense of purpose and feeling that you are good at what you do. “If you walk that back to look at what you can do as a parent, it’s raising conscientious kids,” Damour says. “When you’re conscientious, you tend to have better relationships, you’re caring, you’re not dishonest and you pursue things that have meaning to you.”
Maybe it seems obvious. Of course we want our kids to be good people. Of course we want them to be empathetic and kind and caring. We want our kids to work hard at their goals—even when things get tough—but we don’t want them to be the type of people who are more focused on their personal success than the feelings of those around them.
But apparently we’re not doing a very good job of getting that point across to our kids, at least not according to a 2014 study detailed in The Atlantic:
While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
So how can we not only value empathy but also encourage it? Well, we start by modeling it. Kids are more likely to do as we do, not do as we say. Let them see you shoveling the sidewalk for your elderly neighbor, volunteering at the local food bank and buying gifts for families in need during the holidays. And when you catch them being kind—praise, praise, praise.
But Nordberg also writes that we should actually create opportunities that “encourage empathy, collaboration and kindness rather than waiting for them to spontaneously happen.” We should be empathy enablers.
Enlist older kids to help with younger kids, whether it’s at home with siblings or at school as mentors or tutors. Involve them in your own problem-solving brainstorms. Clear off the kitchen table and spread out the thank-you card supplies so they’ll actually write the thank-you notes. Seek out moments in which you can encourage them to be kind, and they’ll build those empathetic muscles while also recognizing the value you place on those characteristics.
And then, one day, your kid might be the tennis star who consoles their opponent while the world watches and admires.