Why an achievement-oriented mindset is not enough to help children succeed

…and how mindfulness and empathy can help them do so

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

In the rush of getting good grades, participating in extracurriculars, and learning on technology that is built to be addictive, children today are being shuttled from one activity to another, forgetting to be children. While grades for subjects like math, science, and languages are measurable, there is no measure of characteristics like empathy and mindfulness — two values that I believe will be crucial for creating joy and purpose for children.

Why focus on mindfulness?

As colleges become increasingly competitive, average SAT and GMAT scores get higher, the job market is looking for more skilled professionals, an achievement-oriented mindset has become increasingly important for children to differentiate themselves from others. However, an achievement-oriented mindset, while successful in helping children accomplish specific goals, can lead to intensified stress and anxiety. “25% of 13- to 18-year-olds will experience an anxiety disorder according to the National Institutes of Mental Health” (Gersberg, Mindful.org).

Another study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that “in a survey of 22,000 high school students, on average, students reported feeling negative emotions, such as stress, fatigue, and boredom, 75% of the time” (Gersberg, Mindful.org). If our expectation for achievement continues to increase, without building a coping mechanism in children to deal with that stress, we are creating an unsustainable future.

Mindfulness is the key here. Teaching children to undistractedly live each moment in the present will not only help them reduce their stress and anxiety but will in turn increase their happiness and productivity. From my own journey of learning mindfulness, I believe we can do 3 things to cultivate this from an early age:

Breathing techniques: The simple practice of taking time to inhale and exhale slowly can help balance the mind and focus on the present. In addition to a daily 10-minute breathing routine, parents or teachers can inculcate breathing techniques in daily activities that have physical repetition, such as coloring, exercising, bathing etc.

Gratitude practice: Start sharing ‘thanks’ for everyday situations, things, and people during your meal-time. For example, ‘thank you for a delicious and healthy meal’, or ‘I am grateful for feeling refreshed after having water’. Expressing gratitude brings mindfulness to those daily attributes of our life, that we often take for granted. This gratitude practice is not only helpful in building mindfulness for daily pleasures, but also in building resilience during times of stress or anxiety. By being grateful for learnings from tough times, children build a safe mechanism to deal with failures in a largely achievement-oriented world.

Slowing down: Finally, as much as this is difficult to do, slowing down and decluttering the schedule can help begin mindful living. However, this decluttered time needs to be filled with quality time with loved ones or slowing down on regular activities (e.g., eating), rather than filling it with extra screen time. Today, screen-time itself can be excessively stimulating for our brains, where technology is built to capture our attention and keep us glued to the screen. Our attention spans are reducing to limited 30 second to 10-minute content. Encouraging activities beyond the screen can help build meaningful relationships and time to focus on specific activities.

This brings me to my second focus — cultivating empathy.

An achievement-oriented mindset can be helpful in gathering accolades and succeeding. However, it also encourages a ‘me-first’ attitude, where children notice that parents value attributes such as individual success over caring (Grand & Grand, Atlantic). “A rigorous analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy and in imagining the perspectives of others. Over this period, students grew less likely to feel concern for people less fortunate than themselves — and less bothered by seeing others treated unfairly” (Grand & Grand, Atlantic).

This can lead to negative long-term consequences in our society where collective responsibility, such as ones for the environment, or care of the elderly, get deprioritized when individual success is valued more than collective happiness. In an already divided world, due to hyper-personalization with social media, a lack of empathy can lead to radical consequences.

From my observations of parents around me, I believe empathy-building can start with the below three things:

Stepping out of our daily circles: Expand your child’s “circle of concern” to include people and beings beyond those they interact with daily. Whether it is the plants and animals they read about, or people of another country, children need to empathize with a broader collective world. This can be done by reading books from different perspectives and people, watching educational shows, and most importantly, through daily conversations. Helping children think through the impact of their actions, or of where their meals come from help build empathy for the ‘invisible’ world beyond their physical reach.

Modelling kindness: Children learn best through their parents’ behaviors. Modeling kindness through small daily actions and involving children in the process, in my opinion, is the best way to cultivate empathetic thinking. For me, observing my parents take care of my blind and deaf great-grandmothers was a lesson in kindness. Beyond the home, my grandfather used to feed those affected by floods, and my dad took me to give blankets to the homeless in the winters. Making children part of each small act of kindness, can give them a new perspective into others’ joys and sorrows.

Perspective-taking: Help children take perspectives other than themselves through storytelling, asking engaging questions, being expressive yourselves, and practicing forgiveness and empathetic behaviors in your daily interactions. Ask the questions such as “Why must he/she have done this?” or “How must he/she feel about it?” to encourage nuanced thinking, rather than bullet-point learnings from stories.

While the research around mindfulness and empathy building is still budding, and is harder to quantify, I wanted to share my learnings through my own journey and the journeys of parents and children around me. During this pandemic, as we see the cracks in a profit-maximizing economy, with the income disparities getting broader, and the world becoming more divided in its opinions, I strongly believe that we need empathetic and mindful leaders who can peak into someone else’s life and optimize for fairness, kindness, joy, and mindfulness, over achievements.

Other articles for reference:

Brener, Why We Are Facing an Empathy Deficit (Thrive Global) https://thriveglobal.com/stories/why-we-are-facing-an-empathy-deficit/

Crain, Reclaiming Childhood: Let Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society: https://www.amazon.com/Reclaiming-Childhood-Letting-Children-Achievement-Oriented/dp/0805071547

Droutman, Semple: Mindfulness goes to school: Things Learned so far from research and real-world experiences (NCBI) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5405439/

Eyal, Stanford psychology expert: This is the №1 skill parents need to teach their kids — but most don’t (CNBC) https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/10/stanford-psychology-expert-biggest-parenting-mistake-is-not-teaching-kids-this-important-skill.html

Gertzberg, Best Practices for Bringing Mindfulness into Schools (Mindful.org) https://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-in-education/

Grant, Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids, and Start Raising Kind Ones (The Atlantic) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/stop-trying-to-raise-successful-kids/600751/

Harvard Graduate School of Education: How-to guide to Circle of Concern https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b7c56e255b02c683659fe43/t/5bd7acd14785d33aa84475d1/1540861138486/circle_of_concern_strategy.pdf

Konrath, Speaking of Psychology: The Decline of Empathy and Rise of Narcissism (Episode 95) (APA). https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/empathy-narcissism

Witchalls, Why a Lack of Empathy is the root of all evil (The Independent) https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-lack-empathy-root-all-evil-6279239.html