There is much to admire in the work of Robert Coles, the Harvard University professor and research psychiatrist who, over the last 30 years, has written and edited a range and quantity of books about children, psychology, politics and literature that’s as impressive as it is overwhelming. Coles’ energy and intellectual reach by themselves have earned him public notice, but other qualities--such as clear prose and good taste in the prose of others, especially Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor--have attracted a far wider audience than the jargon-spewing social scientists and language-hating literary critics of present-day academia could ever hope to enjoy.
Indeed, with the death of Christopher Lasch, Coles stands out as one of a diminishing group of scholars who refute the destructive and anti-democratic specialization that has nearly eliminated the general intellectual--once found in the hard sciences as well as in the history and English departments of the great universities--from public and political life. Coles plows on, interviewing and writing like mad, apparently indifferent to fads such as “deconstruction” in literary criticism and the now widespread prescribing of “antidepressants” and “stimulants” in psychology--two similarly hollow efforts to “objectively” confront the subjective terror of the human condition. Coles, thank goodness, believes that there are alternatives to placing problem kids on Ritalin.
But Coles is not without his limitations, as we see in his 53rd book, “The Moral Intelligence of Children,” which follows “The Moral Life of Children” and “The Spiritual Life of Children.” If these titles sound somewhat redundant, it might simply be because Coles writes too often and with too much enthusiasm. (Coles himself distinguishes the three books this way: those first books “describe how various children think about moral issues. . . . Here I am addressing another matter: how we as adults . . . give shape to the values of children as expressed in their behavior, their conduct; how we encourage and instruct them to uphold in daily life one or another set of beliefs.”) But redundancy might also result from a certain superficiality of approach and a tendency to repeat the obvious, which are what make the “The Moral Intelligence of Children” something of a disappointment. In his haste and excitement to engage this hugely complex subject, Coles seems to have skipped a number of essentials and merely grazed some of the profound social issues that figure in a child’s moral education.
Broadly speaking (and I’m guilty of my own oversimplification here), Coles aims to reclaim the study of childhood character formation from the realm of expert psychiatric analysis--which focuses on unconscious emotional development--and return it to the more “old-fashioned” and conscious world of moral example, imitation and conduct. With unaffected reverence for the Golden Rule, Coles, as it were, lifts the child off the analyst’s couch and deposits him back in the home. He urges us--particularly us parents--to see our children as morally educable, even when they’re babies, and not just as primitive masses of conflicting emotions and needs.
Coles is absolutely clear on one thing: Children learn their moral behavior from their parents--there’s nothing innate about it. “Character is ultimately who we are expressed in action,” he writes, “in how we live, in what we do, and so the children around us know: They absorb and take stock of what they observe, namely, us--we adults living and doing things in a certain spirit, getting on with one another in our various ways. Our children add up, imitate, file away what they’ve observed and so very often later fall in line with the particular moral counsel we wittingly or quite unself-consciously have offered them.”
And how do we know that our children are getting the right message from adults--what indicators suggest that they are becoming “good” instead of “bad”? Coles says that “good” children exhibit empathy as well as “respect for others, a commitment of mind, heart, soul to one’s family, neighborhood, nation . . . [and an understanding of] how to turn the rhetoric of goodness into action, moments that affirm the presence of goodness in a particular lived life.”
All well and good, of course, if one has proper instruction. Coles makes a few uncontroversial suggestions: He approves of parents saying “no” when their kids are very young; he proposes, with the support of Anna Freud, that the laissez faire approach to toilet training may have been overdone; and he thinks house pets are useful teachers of moral understanding. But Coles loses his focus when it comes to harder subjects such as drug use, and he virtually ignores larger social issues like the commercial exploitation of children, both as consumers and as laborers.
It may be that in his earlier book, “The Moral Life of Children,” Coles has already dealt sufficiently with “influences outside the home” such as race, class, school desegregation and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. But I don’t see how he can discuss moral intelligence and conduct without attempting to address the myriad ways--among them the consumption of narcotics and merchandise--in which Americans seek to anesthetize themselves. I furthermore don’t understand how he can fail to address the effect on children of a relentless and largely amoral consumer culture that prizes the value of money and possessions so far above moral “values.” Coles has nothing to say, for example, about the far-reaching impact of television as a sales tool for seducing the young. Nor does he confront the increasing brutality of the market, the winner-take-all mentality of modern business that so pervades American life.
Coles challenges us to take children more seriously as moral and intellectual beings, so by all means let’s do it. What, for example, should parents say to their children about the obvious hypocrisy (something children can smell a mile away) of a supposedly commercial-free public television system underwritten by advertisements for profit-making corporations that have no loyalty to anything but the market and their stock price? “Sesame Street’s” message is largely humanist and anti-materialist, but why must Big Bird’s PBS rival, Barney, be brought to you by Huggies, Chuck E Cheese’s and Next Step? What should children incorporate into their moral intelligence after observing their hard-working parents’ despair at being “downsized” by one of PBS’ corporate sponsors? What do kids think about buying sneakers and garments made by other kids in sweatshops in Los Angeles and Jakarta? The crucially important subjects of money and the market, and how they conflict with doing “good,” are given very little weight or consideration.
One of Coles’ more endearing techniques is the use of stories to illustrate moral dilemmas and to teach children how to make moral judgments. He employs short fables by Tolstoy (about caring for the elderly) and by one of his former students (about sharing) to good effect on different groups of children.
However, some readers might wish that Coles had chosen stories with more challenging moral ambiguities of the sort found in, say, T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.” The conflict between Thomas Becket’s loyalty to the king (and the state) and his loyalty to God (and to himself) is one thing. But Becket’s paradoxical assertion made before he chooses the “righteous” path that will assure his execution--"The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right thing for the wrong reason"--would seem to be fruitful territory for discussion. Coles, it is true, warns against making kids self-righteous, of turning them into “goodie-goodies.” Overall, though, he doesn’t seem willing to make children, or for that matter his readers, think too hard about the really vexing questions of contemporary morality.