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Book Forum: CHILD PSYCHIATRY   |    
The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:1827-1828.
View Author and Article Information
New Haven, Conn.

by Robert Coles. New York, Random House, 1997, 199 pp., $21.00; $12.95 (paperback published by Plume, 1998).

The Moral Intelligence of Children is one book in a series that focuses on children’s moral and emotional development. Throughout the book, Robert Coles draws on his experiences as a teacher, clinician, and parent figure to help answer the question, How can you raise a child to be a good person whose moral character and strong values still steer and sustain him or her throughout life? In the light of the recent episodes of violence in our schools and communities, the themes introduced in this book offer alternative ways to think about some of the more subtle issues that underlie children’s behavior.

The book is organized in three sections: Moral Intelligence, The Moral Archaeology of Childhood, and Letter to Parents and Teachers. In the first section, Coles uses case studies to describe what is meant by moral consciousness and to illustrate how moral intelligence develops in children. Striking the contrasts between the "good" and "not-so-good" person, the author reflects on experiences with former students and clients and provides stories that attempt to reveal the origin of a child’s moral consciousness. Through these examples, he depicts what he refers to as the "moral moments" and leads the reader to consider the experiences and events that prompt these moments. Coles places particular emphasis on the role of teachers and parents in helping to cultivate students’ moral consciousness. He implies that we partner with our children in immoral behavior when we fail to take advantage of the moral moments and to model the positive behaviors for children to see. He writes,

The child is a witness; the child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality—or lack thereof; the child looks and looks for cues as to how one ought to behave, and finds them galore as we parents and teachers go about our lives, making choices, addressing people, showing in action our rock-bottom assumptions, desires and values, and thereby telling those young observers much more than we may realize. (p. 5)

In section 2, Coles characterizes what he calls the moral archaeology of childhood. He puts forth the notion that a child’s sense of moral consciousness is shaped at the very start of life by the moral convictions and subsequent decisions and behaviors of significant adults. For example, he suggests that a pregnant mother’s choice to act responsibility on behalf of her unborn child and the parents’ willingness to say no to a child play a part in teaching moral lessons that later influence a child’s behavior. Coles continues this theme throughout a discussion on the elementary school years and ends the section with a compelling discussion on adolescence. This is probably the most challenging time for adults to instill and nurture values in their children. So much of what constitutes the so-called youth culture comes from external sources like music, television, and peer pressure. Coles encourages parents and teachers to be open to discussing the moral dilemmas that adolescents face in a supportive yet responsible way.

The last section brings together the key concepts and ideas Coles puts forth throughout the book. He writes a letter to parents and teachers challenging them to think about the importance of our role in the moral development of children and how we cultivate this construct. Continuing to share stories, cases, and personal experiences, Coles explores the question of how children try to comprehend and manage life’s ambiguities. He introduces the phrase "moral exploration" to describe a child’s natural inclination to wonder about life’s mysteries and ironies. He describes these explorations as activities of the mind and heart that characterize the impulse to probe for meaning and significance.

Finally, Coles offers a variety of suggestions for teachers to help children make these explorations. These include giving the students the opportunity to do community service and reading literature such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1) or Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society (2). He also suggests that class discussions of such books would facilitate moral explorations and help clarify students’ understanding and conceptions. Reflecting on his own upbringing, Coles suggests that parents, through a variety of ways, must transmit the values and ideals that they hold dear to their children. Storytelling of family history and experiences, as well as honest discussions about what can go wrong and why with respect to human behavior, can serve as a resource for children to draw on as they grow into adulthood and develop their own sense of moral consciousness.

Although many of the concepts and ideas are not new, The Moral Intelligence of Children is an inspiring book that is full of stories, examples, and provocative ideas that help the reader think differently about the important role adults play in shaping a child’s moral intelligence. Cole’s style of writing and use of case study examples and personal experiences is a delightful and effective way to illustrate such an abstract concept. This book should be read by parents, teachers, and clinicians.

Ellison R: Invisible Man. New York, Modern Library, 1963
Erikson EE: Childhood and Society. New York, WW Norton, 1964


Ellison R: Invisible Man. New York, Modern Library, 1963
Erikson EE: Childhood and Society. New York, WW Norton, 1964

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