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Nonfiction in Brief

THE MORAL CHILD Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth by William Damon (The Free Press: $19.95)

September 25, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

The dilemma facing every parent whose child balks at taking piano lessons or going to summer school is one shared by our schools: How can we give our kids the freedom to do as they want and to think as they choose while still handing down our heritage and communicating our values? Psychiatrist Robert Coles has neatly resolved this dilemma by contending that parents and teachers need only treat children as adults, showing curiosity about and respect for their opinions. These "natural" social interactions, Coles believes, are enough to awaken the child's "incipient moral awareness."

Coles' idealistic theory offers little comfort, though, to the growing number of teachers who sense that their students are becoming ethically shallow and worse, and to parents who wonder whether children will be able to find role models in a society where the shoddy ethics of respected public figures--from chicanery to hypocrisy--are disclosed almost daily.

For these people, "The Moral Child" offers more sensible and satisfying answers. William Damon, a psychology professor at Clark University, combines the concern of former Education Secretary William Bennett (who says students will never appreciate democracy and freedom unless the value of such concepts is stressed in class) with the conscientiousness of Coles (who sees ideal education as a dialogue between student and teacher rather than a monologue by teacher to student).

Damon's model for this type of learning--a school designed as a participatory democracy in which students have important decision-making rights--is a bright idea, giving children the responsibility they once had in agrarian society, where they assisted in the family trade and cared for their younger siblings. Unfortunately, Damon's specific examples leave us wondering whether his school will work. Many a school principal will shiver at the thought of weekly "community meetings," for instance, where even the most unruly students meet in an auditorium to determine school policy. On the other hand, not holding meetings may be even more risky, for as Damon's book adeptly shows, our failure to give students a sense of responsibility may have fostered this unruliness in the first place.

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