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The Moral Life of Children by Robert Coles (The Atlantic Monthly: $19.95; 352 pp., illustrated) : The Political Life of Children by Robert Coles (The Atlantic Monthly: $19.95; 264 pp., illustrated)

February 09, 1986|Jonathan Kellerman | Kellerman, clinical psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine, is the author of two books on childhood stress as well as the novel, "When the Bough Breaks."

Trained as a pediatrician and child psychoanalyst, Robert Coles has spent his professional life exploring and illuminating the inner world of the child. In the process, he has created an impressive body of work, crowned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, multivolume "Children of Crisis" series.

In his writings, Coles has seemingly ignored the delineation between the academic and the popular, producing books that are scholarly, yet accessible, writing with warmth, clarity and grace that set him apart in a field notorious for jargon-laden puffery. (It is no coincidence that among his major influences are doctor-novelists William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy.) More important, he is a researcher with integrity, stating his biases forthrightly (agnostic, left-leaning white liberal) and taking pains to tease out their impact upon his conclusions. And here is one psychoanalyst who eschews the protective omnipotence of the unseen interviewer: When Coles interviews a child, it is clear that two human beings are present, each influencing the other.

But what truly distinguishes this self-described "inveterate loner and wanderer" are context and scope, for Coles has traded the comforts and limitations of the psychotherapist's office for the streets and fields of America, seeking out a broad range of children--the offspring of migrants, Eskimos, Indians, the affluent--talking, playing, drawing, interpreting, in an attempt to learn how their development has been affected by the social roles assigned them through the vagaries of nature and nurture.

In "The Moral Life of Children" and "The Political Life of Children," Coles' lab has been expanded to embattled societies outside the United States--Brazil, Nicaragua, Poland, South Africa, Northern Ireland and French Canada. His 35th and 36th books, respectively, they are re-analyses of data--transcripts, drawings and paintings--accumulated over two and a half decades, a final, lingering look prior to permanent deposition in the University of North Carolina library.

"The Moral Life of Children" is loosely constructed around a pair of mega-questions: What is morality and from whence does it spring? Coles criticizes models of moral development, such as Lawrence Kohlberg's, that too strongly correlate morality with intelligence. Quoting Percy's warning that it is possible to "get all A's and flunk life," he offers a brief sample of moral outrages committed by the highly intelligent and describes numerous instances of moral vitality displayed by the "cognitively limited."

Having found cognitive-based theories wanting, Coles searches elsewhere, exploring the psychoanalytic view of altruism as a form of masochism, but remaining clearly dissatisfied with this cynical view of the world. He finds his psychiatric training sometimes irrelevant, even obstructive because of its obsession for value-free analysis and notes "as I got nearer and nearer to becoming . . . a child psychiatrist, I heard less and less about 'character' and more and more about 'character disorders.' " Repeating Gordon Allport's caution that "no amount of psychoanalysis, even an interminable stretch of it . . . can provide a strong conscience to a person who has grown up in such a fashion as to become chronically dishonest, mean-spirited, a liar." Coles journeys into theology, social science and popular culture--one chapter is devoted to the moral images created by movies and television--but emerges with only meager clues, and in the end, settles for re-description--the terse but unilluminating assessment of character as "a moral center that was, quite simply, there."

Along the way, however, he offers a fascinating banquet of vignettes, children whose deeds, thoughts and feelings resonate with moral strength. There is Ruby, a black child, living in the New Orleans of the '50s, who braved daily threats, humiliation and danger at the hands of racist mobs in order to desegregate a school, all the while praying for her oppressors. And Hank, "from a family all too easily labeled by the likes of me, 'redneck,' " son of an abusive, hard-drinking, Klan-sympathizing father--who must undergo "dramatic moral shifts" in order to reconcile the racism he has learned at home with his personal--and moral--view of the world.

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