How Kindness and Success Go Hand in Hand

Do we teach our kids to value achievement at the expense of kindness?

That’s what a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly by organizational psychologist Adam Grant and writer Allison Sweet Grant asks.

It caught our eye because, as both parents and educators, we, too, seek to cultivate kindness in the young people around us.

In this post, we explore the relationship between kindness and success.

We also offer insights into what compassion has to do with the college admissions process!

The Decline of Empathy

The Grants cite studies suggesting that kindness and the ability to empathize with others is in decline among college students.

They also cite figures suggesting that, while most parents say they want to raise caring children, most children say that their parents value achievement and happiness over compassion for others.

The authors also mention anecdotal examples of parents who refrain from intervening when their children are selfish in their play. Why? Fear of raising children who don’t know how to stick up for themselves.

Kids, the Grants claim,

“see their peers being celebrated primarily for the grades they get and the goals they score, not for the generosity they show. They see adults marking their achievements without paying as much attention to their character. Parents are supposed to leave a legacy for the next generation, but we are at risk of failing to pass down the key virtue of kindness.”

Kindness and Academic Success

This may sound a bit grim.

But the great news is that this is one of those rare cases where parents can have their cake and eat it too.

As the Atlantic Monthly article claims, kindness and success might just go hand in hand! The authors cite an encouraging amount of evidence suggesting that children who help others end up achieving more than children who don’t.

Here are some amazing facts about the power of empathy in this respect:

  • Boys rated as “helpful” by their kindergarten teacher earn more money 30 years later
  • Middle-school students who help, cooperate, and share with their peers get better grades and standardized-test scores
  • The eighth graders with the greatest academic achievement were rated “most helpful” by their third-grade classmates
  • Middle schoolers who believe their parents value being helpful, respectful, and kind over excelling academically, attending a good college, and having a successful career perform better in school

What might be behind these impressive statistics? For one thing, concern for others often leads to supportive relationships, which can be beneficial in any environment, academic or otherwise. 

Empathy can also minimize depression, which can hinder professional and social performance. Students who care about others might additionally feel a sense of a “higher purpose.”

Indeed, empathetic students “tend to see their education as preparation for contributing to society—an outlook that inspires them to persist even when studying is dull.” 

How This Relates to College Admissions

In our perspective, another big reason we believe kindness dovetails with success is that we’ve spent a great deal of time researching what it is college admissions offices look for in the students they admit. As a result, we can say with absolute confidence that kindness is exactly the kind of character trait that colleges want.

In fact, in 2016, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report containing recommendations for the college admissions process. In this report, a coalition of admissions counselors from top schools–including Princeton University–encourage applicants to “focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.”

In other words, they urge students to prioritize community engagement, service, and responsibility for the future in preparing for college (and the application process as a whole).

Mission statements colleges post on their websites confirm this, as words like “service” and “community” and “collaboration” come up frequently. Dartmouth College, for example, states that “Dartmouth fosters lasting bonds…which…instill a sense of responsibility for each other and for the broader world.”  

Princeton University notes that

“The University’s defining characteristics and aspirations include…a human scale that nurtures a strong sense of community, invites high levels of engagement, and fosters personal communication.”

The concept of service — a university’s obligation to serve its students, and students’ obligation to serve the surrounding community and the world at large — are incredibly important to schools.

In a survey conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 290 institutions were asked, “What steps has your institution taken to make its involvement in community service activity more effective?” The top response was to place greater emphasis on community service in their missions.

Colleges also emphasize the importance of character, another concept we discuss at greater length in other posts.

Character is an indication of leadership potential and is demonstrated through your academic and extracurricular activities. And, remember: A large component of character involves helping others.

Next Steps

So, how should parents put all this into action?

The Grants write in their article that they’ve started asking their children fewer questions like “How did the test go?” or “Did your team win?”. Instead, they strive to ask more questions about what their children did that day to help other people.

They’re also making an effort to share some of their own experiences with helping (including moments when they failed) and encouraging friendships not with the class braggart but rather with classmates who are kind and helpful.

We also encourage students to look into service opportunities at their school.

Is there a volunteer organization at school you can join? If not, think about founding one yourself!

Not only will this look good to colleges, but it will also make you feel good. In psychology, this phenomenon is called “helper’s high,” and neurological studies have found that being generous activates reward centers in our brains.

As the Grants conclude, “teaching children to care about others might be the best way to prepare them for a successful and fulfilling life.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.