While parents take seriously the task of teaching children values, a new Pew Research Center survey released Thursday shows a gulf between how conservatives and liberals, women and men, young and old and different races order the values they believe children should be taught.
The report, "Teaching the Children: Sharp Ideological Differences, Some Common Ground," looked at 12 different qualities parents might try to inculcate in children. It found chasms between liberals and conservatives, but also near universal agreement despite ideological differences.
"We found a remarkable amount of consensus about certain traits — responsibility, hard work, helping others," said Jocelyn Kiley, Pew associate director of research and one of the report's authors. "There are also some rather striking differences across ideological groups."
People categorized as "consistent conservatives," for example, tended to place a high premium on teaching children religious faith, while "consistent liberals" did not. The consistent liberals found great value in teaching tolerance, which was much lower on the conservatives' priority list. Curiosity ranks high on liberal rankings, but low for conservatives. Obedience comes in last on the consistent liberal list and was ranked fifth among consistent conservatives.
The report noted that women and men had similar priorities, although women listed helping others and empathy as important more often than men did. Women put a "somewhat higher priority" on teaching religious faith.
Breaking the priorities down by age showed differences in valuing obedience — 68 percent of those 65 and older prioritize it, compared to 56 percent for those younger than 30.
World as classroom
Numerous surveys, studies and organizations have looked at how kids learn character and values.
Becky Sipos, CEO and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Character Education Partnership, which was not involved in the Pew research, thinks character education works best when it's intentional. "It works so much better if we think about what we want to teach them — think about values that are important and the best way to impart those values." Then make sure your behavior backs up those intentions.
It's not uncommon for well-intentioned parents to sabotage their own efforts at moral development in children by doing things that send a different message than what they're trying to encourage. She cites as an example a parent who talks about cooperation and fair play, then throws a tantrum and swears at the referee at a sporting event.
Teaching moral development is a process, the lessons more complex as the child grows up. "You can teach the little ones right and wrong pretty easily. As they get older, the areas of gray become more complex. We believe that besides being intentional, it needs to be systematic," said Sipos of her organization, a national nonprofit that works primarily with schools on character education.
Schools decide where to focus — and so should parents, Sipos said. "It's usually things where we can get buy-in from the whole group. Unfortunately, the village is pretty fragmented," she said. "It's all the more important that we stop and think about what kinds of kids do we want running the future."
Nuts and bolts
In the study, the 12 qualities parents were asked to consider were independence, hard work, being responsible, creativity, being well-mannered, helping others, persistence, religious faith, obedience, empathy for others, curiosity and tolerance.
Pew looked at the value parents place on teaching each by asking whether the value is important and, if so, whether it was a top-three value.
Kiley said the report follows research on political polarization to "examine how political values express themselves." She said Americans have become more ideological over time and part of understanding the political landscape is examining the spillover of growing partisanship into other aspects of life like parenting.
Pew surveyed 3,243 people who were originally part of a much-larger pool for the "Political Polarization in the American Public" study released earlier this year. There, they documented partisanship "strongly correlated with things not related to politics," like whether people preferred to live in bigger houses and drive to stores, or communities where they could walk, Kiley said.
To place people on the conservative to liberal spectrum, adults were asked 10 questions on topics that include attitudes toward business, homosexuality, foreign policy, government's role and immigration, among others. Based on answers, individuals were classed as "consistently" or "mostly" conservative or liberal, or "mixed."
Overall, responsibility came in No. 1, with 93 percent saying teaching it is especially important and 55 percent putting it in the top three. Independence, hard work and good manners received high marks from all groups.
"The areas of ideological agreement and disagreement are revealing," the report said. "For instance, 'helping others' is widely valued as an important quality; three-quarters or more in every ideological group say it is important to teach children to help others. Yet 'empathy for others' is more divisive. Fully 86 percent of consistent liberals say it is important to teach children empathy; far fewer consistent conservatives (56 percent) agree."
Sliced other ways
Younger adults put higher value than older adults on creativity as a most-important value. Although all agree responsibility is important, fewer young adults put it on their top three list.
"Child-rearing values are also associated with education," the report noted. "College graduates tend to place a somewhat higher priority on teaching children empathy, curiosity, tolerance and persistence. Compared with college graduates, those with no more than a high school education tend to put more emphasis on teaching children obedience, religious faith and being well-mannered."
College grads are also more prone to prioritize curiosity than are those with less education. The same is true for teaching empathy.
The report says blacks are more likely to place a high value on instilling religious faith than are whites or Hispanics. They are also more likely than whites to emphasize teaching obedience.
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