It’s fair to say that mindfulness sounds like a good thing. And if you’re lucky enough to have a kid who’s into meditation, you have reason to be proud. In the immortal and likely inaccurate words of the Dalai Lama: “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, the world will be without violence within one generation.” The catch is that there’s little reason to believe that kids benefit from meditation or other activities associated with mindfulness. In fact, a recent study in Scientific Reports reviewing 22 randomized, controlled trials involving 1,685 participants concluded that meditation did not decrease aggression or prejudice. And the few studies that suggest meditation makes kids more compassionate were all either poorly designed or co-authored by people selling something.
“This, of course, does not invalidate Buddhist or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices,” coauthor Miguel Farias of Coventry University in England writes. “However, the adaptation of spiritual practices into the lab suffers from methodological weaknesses and is partly immersed in theoretical mist.”
Meditators certainly talk about meditation as though it works. Transcendental Meditation researchers have released several studies reporting that their mindfulness technique decreases aggression and violence at the population level, and a battery of Buddhism-derived techniques promise to increase prosocial behaviors such as compassion, social connection, and altruism. Based largely on these studies, clinical psychologists have been using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for two decades to fight depression and chronic pain. Officials have suggested using various forms of meditation to reduce conflict in schools and in prisons. Meditation has even been commandeered for soldiers on the battlefield and to help high-powered corporate types make money (two applications that are, incidentally, offensive to many Eastern practitioners).
And yet, literature reviews that have examined design flaws within these studies argue that they are inconclusive. “The majority of meta-analyses on the benefits of meditation acknowledge the pervasive methodological shortcomings of the studies analyzed, but still suggest that such results are ‘encouraging’ or ‘promising,’” Farias writes. “Unfortunately, such note of optimism is premature in what concerns the literature on the prosocial effects of meditation.”
For this new meta-analysis, Farias and colleagues selected 22 randomized, controlled studies that measured either compassion, connectedness, empathy, aggression, or prejudice in healthy populations before and after meditation. The only included meditation techniques that fit the relatively strict definition of “a form of focused attention to one or more elements, such as to one’s body, breath, conscious awareness, or to a particular word, thought or emotive state, which did not involve any physical activity.” (This excluded yoga and Tai Chi, for instance).
Farias and his team were struck by the poor methodology behind even these 22 relatively robust studies. “The methodological quality of the studies was generally weak, while one third was graded as moderate, and none had a grading of strong,” Farias writes. “Only two studies assessed confounding factors…and only five reported the method of randomization.” All but one of the 14 studies that involved in-person meditation instruction listed the teacher as a coauthor. And the only study that bothered asking participants whether they believed meditation worked found that those randomized to meditate had substantially higher expectations of a positive effect than the control group (almost surely indicating that expectation bias skewed the results).
By the numbers alone, the analysis failed to find a meaningful correlation between meditation and prosocial behaviors. But the results were also disappointing qualitatively—meditation had no effect on aggression, connectedness, or prejudice. And its modest effects on compassion and empathy disappeared when studies employed the gold standard of an active control group (that is, a group of non-meditators who were asked to do something similar to meditation).
“The majority of studies we reviewed presented very tenuous and unclear justifications for why a meditation intervention ought to improve prosocial outcomes,” Farias writes. Which doesn’t mean mindfulness is useless, or that you shouldn’t teach your kids to meditation. It means that, like most religious or spiritual interventions, going through the motions cannot guarantee ethical or prosocial behavior. Devout people are often just as terrible as anybody else, and it never made much sense to believe that meditation alone could turn our kids into good people.
So teach your family to focus on the present, and practice breathing mindfully, if that helps you relax. But don’t expect meditation to increase altruism around the dinner table. There aren’t any quick fixes to raising compassionate kids—and, however much it hurts, the best way to guarantee your kids grow into decent adults is to make sure you’re a decent father. And if meditation makes you a more present and involved dad, we strongly suggest you get on it.