Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd says it’s closer than you think.
Two years ago, a headline-grabbing study in Current Biology concluded that religious children from around the world shared less than those from non-religious homes. The media coverage stirred up controversy by drawing broader, more unfavorable conclusions of religion than the actual study. “Religious Kids Are Jerks,” raged the Daily Beast. More recently, the findings were disputed by another study in the same publication, pointing out that miscalculations of the data skewed the results and when accounting for those errors, there is little difference in altruistic behavior between religious kids and nonreligious kids.
Regardless of conclusions, the debate provides a robust context for Christian parents and teachers to think about the importance of moral development, not just in our children but in society at large. Whether religion contributes to altruism is a question worth exploring and leads to a more pressing concern for parents and educators: How do we actually go about developing empathy in our kids?
Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist and founder of Making Caring Common, thinks religion may play a part in raising empathetic kids, but that’s not actually the question his research asks. Instead, he explores the how. In the report “The Children We Mean to Raise,” he and his colleagues argue that the key to fostering moral development is to focus on your actions and not words alone. “How youth view adults in general may further reduce their commitment to fairness,” they report. “Teens don’t appear to perceive adults as acting with any more integrity than they are.”
In the key survey, Weissbourd and his colleagues surveyed 10,000 diverse middle and high school …