By Tim Kasser
I recently became aware of the KIDS program at a consultation in New York City where a group of people were discussing the many ways in which our culture undermines children's well-being. The media portrayals of sex and violence and the constant glorification of consumption and materialism were the primary topics of our conversation, as were ideas about how to swim against the polluted stream of these cultural messages. Jane Levine, co-founder of KIDS, was one of the participants, and shared with us the excellent work this program is doing regarding issues of poverty and hunger.
From what Jane said, it was clear to me that KIDS does much more than work to eliminate poverty and hunger: It also teaches kids values which are too rarely encouraged in contemporary America. This is an area of special interest to me, for during the last several years my colleagues and I have been conducting empirical research about people's values. What I find exciting about the KIDS program is that it encourages a set of values which research shows: a) provide an antidote to the self-centeredness and materialism of consumer culture; and b) are associated with enhanced personal well-being.
KIDS aims to help children know that they can make a difference, that they can help others, and that their actions are one's which can benefit the world. In my research (e.g., Kasser & Ryan, 1993; Kasser, 1994), we call these "community feeling" or "helpfulness" values; others (e.g., Cohen & Cohen, 1996; Schwartz, 1994) have called these "conventional" or "benevolence" values, agreeing that they involve a focus on improving the state of the world. One of the clear findings emerging from all of these research projects is that individuals who are primarily oriented towards such community feeling values place less importance on materialistic, self-centered values. That is, to the extent kids care strongly about helping others and improving the state of the world, they are less likely to "buy into" the consumer values of desiring personal wealth, possessions, and popularity, and of having the "right" image. In my mind, this is one of the really beneficial effects of programs such as KIDS: It swims against the cultural stream of values.
A second interesting fact we know about people who strongly value helping the world and improving the lives of others is that they are happier and better adjusted than individuals who care about other, more materialistic values. Across several studies of adolescents and young adults, my colleagues and I have shown that individuals oriented towards community feeling and helpfulness report greater self-actualization and vitality, less depression and anxiety, fewer behavior disorders, and less narcissistic tendencies (Kasser & Ryan, 1993; Kasser, 1994). Similar results have been reported by other investigators (e.g., Cohen & Cohen, 1996). There are a variety of reasons adolescents who value helping others might be more psychologically healthy, but we believe one important reason is that it provides them with experiences which satisfy their needs to be connected to others and to feel competent and effective.
So when we think of the KIDS program, we can recognize that it does good work in at least three regards. First, it helps to solve problems of hunger and poverty, laudable goals in their own right. Second, by helping kids see the importance of helping others, it encourages a value system at odds with the consumer culture in which we live. Finally, the types of values encouraged by KIDS may actually help improve the quality of its participants' lives, making teens happier and better adjusted. What more could one ask?
Tim Kasser is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Galesburg, IL. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Cohen, P., & Cohen, J. (1996). Life values and adolescent mental health. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.
Kasser, T. (1994). Further dismantling the American dream: Differential well-being correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.
Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410-422.
Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.