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The Moral Intelligence of ChildrenReview - The Moral Intelligence of Children
How to Raise a Moral Child
by Robert Coles
Plume, 1998
Review by Larry Hultgren, Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 26)

"Many the wonders," concluded the ancient chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, but for the Pulitzer Prize-winning child psychiatrist Robert Coles nothing is more wonder-full than our children. Not only do we, their parents, consider them wonderful, but children themselves are full of wonder about life’s various mysteries and complexities. Throughout a lifetime of working with children as parent, teacher, pediatrician, and child psychiatrist, Coles has learned "a lifelong clinical lesson: that children very much need a sense of purpose and direction in life, a set of values grounded in moral introspection - a spiritual life that is given sanction by their parents and others in the adult world."(177) This book is Coles’s response to that need.

The Moral Intelligence of Children is a different kind of book for Robert Coles. In previous works dealing with this topic, e.g. The Moral Life of Children (1986) and The Spiritual Life of Children (1990), Coles described how children reason about moral, ethical and spiritual questions. However, in this new study, Coles recognizes that "moral reasoning is not to be equated with moral conduct." (181) Affirming Ralph Waldo Emerson’s conclusion that "character is higher than intellect," Coles explores the disparity between intellect and character, between knowing the good and doing the good. "[T]he issue of goodness," he writes "is not an abstract one, but rather a concrete, expressive one: how to turn the rhetoric of goodness into action."(17) As the subtitle reveals, this new book is written primarily for parents and teachers on "How To Raise A Moral Child."

Perhaps a word of warning needs to accompany Coles’s subtitle. If readers are looking for a quick moral fix to recent moral tragedies involving children, for example the Littleton Massacre, they may be disappointed. This work is not intended to be an authoritative ethical handbook with practical approaches to everyday encounters with children. You won’t find discussions of rules or laws or strategies or techniques within. And Coles eschews casting moral conflicts into the common language and terminology of philosophical ethics. To the contrary, "This book is about the moral conversations we can and might and do have with our children as well as with ourselves and with one another as adults." (9) To this end he offers "stories and thoughts meant to inspire the shaping of the moral imagination."(7) The closest Coles comes to giving advice is his suggestion that we ought to "take nouns that denote good moral traits...and try to convert them into verbs: tasks to accomplish, plans for action, to be followed by the actual work of doing."(16)

As Coles pursues a "moral archaeology of childhood" in Part Two, he discovers that most of the problems he encounters are "not only clinical, but...deeply moral." (129) Although some issues are indeed "the province of psychology; yet a moral life is also on its way here, though we today may not be especially interested in seeing that to be the case." (94) As he moves " from psychology to ethics"(92), he concludes that the amoral "tools" of modern psychology often are not helpful. For example, as Coles works with Marie, Charlie, and "The Crowd" he becomes concerned about a "moral matter," the issue of confidentiality, and worries about the "ethics of [their] agreed upon ‘relationship’". (46) Although his response as a ‘psychologist’ is that "it’s none of my business," (48) Coles believes these youths to be "in grave moral danger." (49) And he is frustrated with his own inability to diagnose and treat a moral problem: "Or is that true? Isn’t all of what we’re circling around very much my business, and everyone’s? These youths are not only plagued by ‘problems,’ they’re in moral...trouble." (48)

If modern psychologists are not the moral experts here, then who are? Coles seems to imply that parents and teachers can best enable their children to successfully negotiate their way through the shoals of moral difficulty. Children learn moral lessons at home, at school, in the neighborhood, in the community, from popular culture, etc. However, as even Coles knows, these are "lessons that can sometimes get them into a good deal of difficulty - or out of it." (32)

There are two especially noteworthy features to Coles’s argument. First, moral character is shaped from infancy through adolescence through witnessing the conduct and caring of others and through moral conversations. In this way, certain moral qualities, such as empathy, are nurtured or thwarted.

In addition to the importance of how people behave toward one another, Coles emphasizes "moral work," the linking of reflection to experience, the connecting of intellect to character. This is neither a matter of adults showing children what matters to them, nor a matter of parents and teachers having their reasons for encouraging children to behave. It involves sharing those reasons with children, stirring moral reflection. Recalling the wise counsel of his mentor, Erik Erikson, Coles writes: "It’s a long haul, bringing up our children to be good; you have to keep doing that, bring them up, and that means bringing things up with them: asking; telling; sounding them out; sounding off yourself; teaching them how to go beyond why." (194)

If the role of parents and teachers is simply to assert their authority or frighten children to moral submission, it would not much matter whether their goal was education or moral indoctrination (perhaps of a religious slant). Thus, what Coles is really emphasizing here is the ability of children to become mindful about matters of morality. Whatever else a good moral education should involve, it should cultivate the moral reflectiveness of children.

In The Moral Intelligence of Children, Coles makes an impassioned plea for our "taking up the moral side of our children’s life." (xiv) However, here is where Coles may need to take more seriously his move from "psychology to ethics." (9) Ethics is that part of philosophy that is concerned with the question "What should I do?" As Socrates warned us in the Republic, in ethics "we are discussing no small matter but how we ought to live." Thus ethics refers both to a disciplined study of our values and their justification and to the actual values we live. Coles has been an excellent oral moral historian as he has drawn our attention to the moral life of children and adults, to the actual values and principles of conduct by which parents and children live. However, ethics as a discipline is primarily concerned with moving beyond the actual morals we have and engaging in a critical analysis of those values and rules and principles.

On the one hand, Coles is correct in his concern that "the study of philosophy, say, even moral philosophy or moral reasoning, doesn’t by any means necessarily prompt in either the teacher or the student a daily enacted goodness." (182 ) Hence his effort here on the role of the moral imagination in developing moral intelligence. However, although a philosophical approach to promoting moral behavior in children is not sufficient, it does seems to be necessary "with respect to the possibility that moral reasoning and reflection can somehow be integrated into a student’s and a teacher’s lived life."(183) If we are to avoid moral indoctrination, whether by precept or by example, we will need to promote the critical thinking skills of our children as well as expand their moral imagination. It is precisely this combination of children’s capacities to be stirred by moral experience and to engage in reflection that constitutes their potential for moral intelligence.


Larry Hultgren describes himself as follows:

A.B. Grinnell College majoring in Philosophy and Religion; Ph.D. Vanderbilt University in Philosophy. Currently Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, VA. Since I am at a liberal arts college, my teaching runs the gamut of philosophy offerings. I am especially interested in interdisciplinary pursuits, and I direct the college's Social Ecology Program and our innovative PORTfolio Project which attempts to bring the liberal arts to life for our students by connecting the classroom with real world experiences. I also serve on the Bioethics Committee of the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA, and serve on the Board of Directors of the Bioethics Network of Southeast Virginia.


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