Footnote 17 – Robert Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children

Footnote 17 – Robert Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children: How To Raise a Moral Child (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 32-34.

Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and research psychiatrist for the Harvard University Health Services.  He has spent much of his career researching, interviewing, and analyzing how children learn moral/ethical concepts. His more than 80  books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning, landmark five-volume Children of Crisis, and the best-selling work, The Moral Life of Children.  Many people, including those professing moral values deriving from Christianity, maintain skepticism of psychiatry, but Coles is worth listening to as he describes what he has observed through decades of working with many children, and discussing his observations with scholars and non-scholars, the famous and the unheralded.

In the following excerpt, Coles is discussing (with Anna Freud) psychoanalyst August Aicchorn’s work with “wayward youth.”  Even after more than a half-century, important lessons can be learned by those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

“’My dad says one thing, he’s a great talker, but he does another thing.’ The words of a cynical teenager. A school psychologist and a district court judge declared this boy a ‘juvenile delinquent’ in 1958, and I was learning to talk with such a person. [Aicchorn had an] uncanny knack for working with extremely troubled, ‘anti-social’ adolescents…[knowing] that the waywardness of these young men [mostly] was in direct proportion to the peculiarities of their ‘moral education.’ …[He] figured out early on in his work that some young people who seem headed in the wrong direction have been headed there for a long time…[saying] ‘many of these boys headed for trouble and more trouble have parents who seem so upright.  They are very good talkers – but their children have found them out, that is the sad truth. The family secret is being revealed by the child, who is telling the world, ‘See, they may strike everyone as “straight and narrow,” but I know something else, and what I have found out has become a big part of my life!’”

“…Sometimes the trouble is cognitive: a child is in intellectual difficulty, in need of ‘testing.’ …Yet often, I have thought to myself, then said to colleagues, that the issue at hand is very much moral: a child has gotten into trouble, all right – done something wrong, hurt someone, or violated a school regulation, a community’s customs, or even laws. Often under such circumstances we explain the matter through resort to psychology, or, yes, sociology – the child’s ‘psychodynamics,’ home life, background, medical history, ‘cognitive functioning’ as shown in various tests. Nor is all that to be ignored or downplayed. Still, Erik H. Erikson once commented, ‘These days, we sometimes spend a lot of time avoiding the obvious, and sometimes, psychology helps us do so!’

“…At what point do we face squarely that side of a child’s life and conclude that a moral crisis is at hand, one requiring a candid assessment of character, an assessment of what a boy’s or girl’s moral assumptions, attitudes, and values have turned out to be, and with what likely outcome in terms of behavior – law-abiding or ‘antisocial’?”

Coles follows this with several case studies involving cheating; drinking and drugs; and early sexual activity in adolescents.  Well worth a read – even if one may dissent from some observations. Credit to my wife Bette (my resident psychologist) for steering me to this!

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