The Moral Life of Children

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Psychology, like medicine, pays more attention to illness than to health. Psychiatric research seeks to explain defects, aberrations, ailments, and maladjustments, and child psychologists, concerned with severely damaged children, list a litany of contributing causes: fragmented families, unstable homes, irregular education, insecurity, physical and emotional abuse, trauma of various sorts. Parents seeking to rear emotionally healthy children are thus encouraged to protect children from distress. Yet child psychiatrist Robert Coles, after working for many years with children in highly stressful situations, could not help marveling that some admirably strong, integrated, high-functioning, and positively moral children had in their backgrounds virtually every one of the conditions that are consistently used to explain the origins of personality damage or psychiatric disability.

Is it, in fact, possible for psychological theory to explain the development of admirable characteristics? During the crisis years of school integration in the South, six-year-old Ruby Bridges was escorted daily through mobs of screaming, threatening adults, and as the weeks became months she still failed to show any signs of the distress that Coles confidently expected to find. She went to school, learned, smiled, slept soundly, and prayed nightly for her tormenters. Eduardo, a ten-year-old street kid from Rio de Janeiro, survived his stepfather’s brutality and developed finely honed psychological skills and a high degree of sensitivity to other people. To an extent, these served as tools for survival, enabling him to succeed as a beggar. Yet despite plentiful opportunities, Eduardo refused to sell drugs or peddle his own body. He was not simply afraid of jail; indeed, jail would have provided better shelter and food than he had ever known. Yet Eduardo had enough pride and self-respect to realize that he did not want to spend his life with criminals.

Ironically, there is even a suspicion—despite what psychological theory says about trauma—that privilege spoils children. In view of the failures, rebellions, and distressing conformities of children who have been carefully protected, it is tempting to fall back on a Puritan suspicion that struggle is healthy. Yet it would be intolerable not to shield children from abuse, neglect, dislocation, and insecurity. Trauma can destroy. A great many of Eduardo’s age-mates in the favela sell themselves and their sisters, fail to share any earnings with their families, and engage in casual brutality. Is there any way for psychology to explain the variety of outcomes from similar situations?

The Moral Life of Children is an effort by a child psychiatrist to understand children who are well and who cope admirably. Robert Coles writes what he calls “documentary psychology,” describing the moral content of children’s own words, actions, and drawings. He emphasizes the particulars, the anecdotes, and the illustrations rather than analytic abstractions. He has also written a companion volume to The Moral Life of Children called The Political Life of Children (1986; reviewed in this volume).

In so doing, Coles also tests some psychological theories against the realities that he documents. For example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s description of the stages of moral reasoning posits that a person who reaches the highest level of moral behavior must be able to reason logically and must also have acquired a considerable “amount and variety of social experience, the opportunity to take a number of roles and to encounter other perspectives.” Children such as Ruby and Eduardo, however—and, for that matter, adults—with none of these abilities or opportunities still behave in ways that can only be described as extraordinarily moral; they make independent choices to engage...

(The entire section is 1578 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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Christian Century. CIII, June 18, 1986, p. 583.

Commentary. LXXXI, May, 1986, p. 72.

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Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 9, 1986, p. 2.

New York. XIX, January 27, 1986, p. 57.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, January 19, 1986, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXI, February 10, 1986, p. 115.

Psychology Today. XX, June, 1986, p. 73.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, December 20, 1985, p. 53.

Time. CXXVII, March 17, 1986, p. 81.

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