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Study: Teens prioritize their own happiness and success

Saturday - 6/28/2014, 1:59am  ET

Zoe Sagalow, special to

WASHINGTON -- Middle school and high school students prioritize their own happiness and success above concern for others, a new Harvard University study shows.

"We have a lot of great kids out there," said Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who led the study. "We also have these signs thatů many kids are being cruel to each other and many kids are acting selfishly. So we really wanted to get a sense about what's going on nationally with our kids' values."

Weissbourd's team interviewed 10,000 middle and high school students from 33 different schools across the country. They asked them to rank what's important to them: "achieving at a high level," "being happy/feeling good most of the time" and "caring for others."

About 80 percent chose either achievement or happiness as their top priority, and 20 percent chose caring for others.

Weissbourd said he was prompted several years ago to do this study by what he heard in interviews with both children and adults that he did for previous projects -- many seemed to prioritize success, even to the expense of others. Also prompted by the high rates of bullying, sexual harassment, and other misbehavior in young people, he decided to conduct this study.

Weissbourd's team also asked the children which of these goals they perceive that their parents consider most important for them, and a majority also said achievement and happiness are most important to their parents.

"There's a gap between what teens are perceiving are their parents' priorities and what parents are saying are their priorities," Weissbourd said.

Weissbourd said that other researchers have asked similar questions to parents. "Parents say that at least one of their top priorities in child-raising is that kids are concerned about other people -- and that they care more about their kids being caring people than they do about their achievement," Weissbourd said. This is where he says there's a discrepancy.

"We just want to be clear: Achievement's very important -- so is happiness," Weissbourd said. "I just think we're out of balance with this."

He said that, from what he's been told, different people have different ideas about who's responsible for these "out-of-balance" values in young people -- parents blame schools, schools blame parents, and individual teachers blame other teachers.

"To some degree or another, this is all of our problem, and we all need to take responsibility for it," Weissbourd said. "We can't let ourselves off the hook."

"We're really hoping to create conversation here," he said, adding that parents seem to know they're anxious about their children's achievement and concerned about making sure their children are caring toward other people. "[Parents] realize at some level that their words aren't matching their actions," Weissbourd said.

"We're hoping that other parents and teachers will become part of the conversation, that people will talk about this and come up with their own ideas and strategies for what to do about it."

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Tags: teeneducation