FEBRUARY 21, 1997
How can we raise children to be "good" people whose moral character sustains them as adults? Harvard's Robert Coles tells David Gergen his ideas. Read about them, then join our forum.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Coles, we’ve known for a long time about rational intelligence, cognitive intelligence, IQ. We’re learning about emotional intelligence. But what is moral intelligence?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Send questions to Robert Coles as part of a new Online NewsHour feature: Authors' Corner.
January 30, 1997:
David Gergen talks with Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, authors of Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy.
January 22, 1997:
David Gergen talks with Anne Roiphe, author of Fruitful: A Real Mother In The Modern World.
May 3, 1996:
A dialogue with David Popenoe, author of Life Without Father a look at fatherless families in America.
Browse the Gergen Dialogue's index.
Browse the NewsHour's Youth index.
January 27, 1997:
An interview with Robert Coles on National Public Radio about his book The Moral Intelligence of Children.
ROBERT COLES, Author, The Moral Intelligence of Children: Moral intelligence has to do not with the intellectual capacity to discuss moral matters in a classroom or to study them, but moral intelligence, at least as I’ve defined it in this book, and as it was defined for me by the pediatrician who taught me the phrase, moral intelligence means how we behave. It’s moral behavior tested by life, lived out in the course of our everyday experience. That’s--
DAVID GERGEN: So we should human beings in three compartments: their intellectual capacity, their emotional intelligence, or how well they deal with life, and then there’s their conscience.
ROBERT COLES: That’s right. Their conscience as it’s lived, and tested again by life. And this America that we now live in, our cognitive intelligence is constantly discussed, and our schools determine in many ways our lives, what colleges we’re going to get into or graduate schools, and our emotional intelligence has now become a big subject, and, in fact, has been for many years, the emergence really of the school psychologist as a major figure in educational life.
But it’s interesting how little attention is paid in our schools and universities, never mind in our public discussions to this aspect of life, mainly character and moral development, meaning moral living as children learn it, at home and in school. For instance, Harvard University and some of the other universities where some of us teach were originally founded for the installation of character, if you read the early charter that got these schools going.
And of course now that isn’t the primary function as it’s defined. The primary function is the acquisition of knowledge, and then there are the student health services where the students receive--and I’m not saying they shouldn’t receive--but they receive psychiatric or psychological counseling. Then comes the question: How do we encourage lived moral experience in our students, in our children, and of course ultimately in ourselves?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, how do we?
ROBERT COLES: How do we? We do it by living it out, and I guess that’s the message I’m trying to insist upon for myself as a parent and a teacher and for all of us, that we remember that any lesson offered a child in an abstract manner that isn’t backed up by deeds is not going to work very well. We live out what we presumably want taught to our children. And our children are taking constant notice, and they’re measuring us not by what we say but what we do.
DAVID GERGEN: None of us is perfect, so as adults we do make mistakes. I was struck by the phrase that you had about being a good enough parent.
ROBERT COLES: Well, this has taken off on a very wonderful English psychoanalyst, Winnicut, who talked about the good enough mother, and by good enough, I mean, really good enough, meaning good, not just good enough in the sense of offering the child emotional sustenance or that kind of support but really good enough so that the child learns to be good, which means the child is through his or her eyes and ears watching very closely how we behave and if we’re good enough to inspire goodness in our children, that’s quite a step for us, and, of course, for the children.
DAVID GERGEN: What about the importance of stories?
ROBERT COLES: Stories are--we know from the Bible--they’re the way to teach. Stories encourage the moral imagination to work, and they are concrete and connected to everyday experience. Abstract formulations and risks are in one ear and out the next, and even if we memorize them, they don’t have the flesh of the daily life. Stories, we do it, and stories based on experience.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you have a particular story that you enjoy for that purpose?
ROBERT COLES: Well, the story I have is the story of my own son and going to a hospital because one day I was sitting at my desk writing and he came into my study, and he was bleeding. He’d done what he was told not to do; he’d got some of the tools in the barn and used them and cut himself and badly. I had to get him to the hospital. I was driving him to the hospital on a rainy day, and I felt that he ought to get there fast, although he had not severed an artery; nevertheless, he was bleeding. And in getting him to the hospital I was speeding; I was going through red lights; and frankly splashing some people because it was a rain-drenched day.
And he turned to me and he said, "Dad, to get out of trouble we’re going to make more trouble," and he really gave me a moral moment there and a lesson. I slowed down. I took him to the hospital, and as I was driving him, I thought, I am learning something from this nine-year-old boy which I know he’s learned from his mother about moral behavior. We get into the hospital, and because I’m a doctor and I knew the other doctors in this hospital.
They were ready to do an end run around. Other people were waiting in order to attend to us, not on medical--for a medical reason--but frankly out of friendship. And my son was judging me. I felt it. He didn’t say a word, but I said, "Barney, let’s just wait," as they came to offer immediate attention. And I thought, I am a student and he is a teacher. And he got this from his mother, who had again and again taught him in stores and in other places to behave in a certain decent way.
DAVID GERGEN: It’s interesting to me that you spoke frequently in your book about the moral loneliness of children; they sometimes feel morally abandoned; that they really do need a moral guidance. You said, children very much need a sense of purpose and direction on 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. They are born with that.
ROBERT COLES: I think so. We’re the creature of awareness; we’re the creature of language; and we’re the only creature on this planet, maybe in the whole universe, who asks why, who wonders, who knows life is limited, and that we will someday die, and this awareness is a fundamental I think moral aspect of ourselves. The novelist, Walker Percy, did the best job I know of in this century discussing this in his writings, and in those wonderful stories, which are really existentialist invocations of the moral condition that we all struggle with; namely, why am I here, where did I come from, and where, if anyplace, am I going? Children are very much into that.
We all know. They all ask these endless whys, and these are not to be dismissed as merely going through a psychological stage. These whys are affirming their humanity, and these whys show their moral hunger, and we ought to figure out even as we’re wondering about how we’re going to feed them correctly with the right amount of vitamins, we ought to be thinking about these moral aspects of their hunger, and try to figure out how to feed that, and by the way, feed ourselves.
DAVID GERGEN: Mary Pifer, who wrote the very popular book, "Reviving Ophelia," says that many parents of adolescent children are doing the best they can to raise those children but at a certain point those children go out into the outer culture and they’re poisoned by it, and we need to reclaim the culture. How do you advise children on that situation that are facing those problems?
ROBERT COLES: I tell them what I guess I’ve told myself as a parent of three sons; that we have to be there for our children to contend with that culture and take it on directly, not criticizing the children but using the word "we," it’s both of us, the parents and the children, who are caught up in this, and we have to figure out how we’re going to survive amidst it and what our position is in relationship to it, and in that sense, we are a member of a community, and we hope that there are others who are going to be there, standing up with us and sometimes against this onslaught, which it really is, and increasingly so, for all of us, so in that sense we are part of a community.
And we have to find other members in the community. You know, even before adolescence children get on that school bus before the first day of school; they’ve already left home; they’re on that bus. I think I mentioned that in the book. They’re on that bus. It’s a whole new world for them, and they are listening to other voices, and through the other children, they’re picking up what those kids have learned from their parents. And so we--we have to stand tall with our children, using that word "we." We’re part of something. And we have to be aware that they’re hearing other voices from other rooms, so to speak.
DAVID GERGEN: Robert Coles, thank you very much.
ROBERT COLES: Thank you.