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'Web of Factors' Said To Influence Children's Views on Moral Issues

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By Peter Schmidt

In one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of the belief systems of U.S. children, researchers have found that youthful views of morality are influenced by "a web of social and cultural factors," with family support and the effects of poverty both playing pivotal roles.

But children also bring to the consideration of moral choices certain ingrained assumptions about right and wrong that transcend their environment, according to the researchers.

The study, based on findings from a nationwide survey of 5,000 young people in grades 4-12, was commissioned by the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. Data were collected this fall by the polling firm of Louis Harris & Associates Inc.

The noted Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Coles, who will use the survey as part of a larger study of moral education scheduled for completion next year, said the poll results "may provide glimpses into cultural developments ahead of us."

"These findings confirm the observation that moral opinion and commitment in America is increasingly diverse and pluralistic," said Mr. Coles, who served as project director. "The more diverse moral commitments become, the more important it is for leaders in public life to acknowledge and adjust to the social and political challenges of this diversity."

From children's answers to a set of 90 questions, researchers determined that, while affluent children may have more uncertainties about moral choices, children at the poorest rung of the social ladder are much more apt to feel pressured to engage in antisocial or self-harmful behavior.

Poor children in the study were found to be four times more likely than other children to say they felt pressured to join a gang, and three times more likely to say that decisions on drug use were a pressure in their lives. They were also nearly twice as likely to feel pressured to disobey authority, half again as likely to feel pressures to have sex, and more than twice as likely to see suicide as an acceptable solution to life problems.

Though differences in responses were also evident along racial and gender lines, the researchers cautioned that many factors were at work in children's answers, and that findings should be viewed in multiple contexts.

In particular, they noted that "the surprise finding of this study is that the assumptions and beliefs children maintain about the foundations of moral truth tend to be an even more important factor [than socioeconomic considerations] in understanding how children come to make the decisions they do in the moral dilemmas they face."

These assumptions--grouped in the study into five "types," depending on their primary origin--provide an overall "moral context," the researchers said, which in turn is influenced by the social background of the child.

The study affirms that children "are capable of making moral decisions--in some cases, very subtle moral decisions--that show consistency and reflection." Those interested in understanding young people's moral lives, it says, must address the reasoning behind their behavior as well as their environments.

"It is not enough to 'just say no'--to drugs or any other undesirable behavior," according to the authors. "Children are capable of moral reasoning and adults would do well to cultivate this."

A View From 'Many Voices'

The Girls Scouts Survey on the Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children was undertaken by the Girl Scouts in partnership with the Lilly Endowment and the C.S. Mott Foundation. Harvard University and the Williamsburg Charter Foundation also provided support for the project, with the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter serving as its research analyst.

Children at public, private, and parochial schools were asked questions that gauged not only their beliefs and the assumptions on which they were based, but also such factors as the amount and kind of adult support they have, the pressures they face, and the future they foresee.

From this data, the study concludes that "any inclination to view children as a homogeneous group is misguided fundamentally."

"Children do not represent just one voice," it says, "but rather many voices."

The findings also show, according to the study, that "those genuinely interested in children cannot ignore the importance of the family." No other social institution, it asserts, is an adequate substitute.

In the section of the poll that specifically gave children moral dilemmas to resolve, the surveyors found that:

  • Only 5 percent would take money from their parents without asking, but 36 percent would lie to protect a friend who had vandalized school property.
  • Sixty-five percent of high-school students would cheat on an important exam.
  • Forty-six percent of junior-high and high-school students would refuse an alcoholic drink if offered one at a party.
  • Thirty-seven percent of junior-high and high-school students would have sex with someone they loved, if the opportunity presented itself.
  • Only 12 percent of junior-high and high-school students would advise a pregnant friend to have an abortion; 57 percent would advise her to keep the baby or put it up for adoption. Black and Hispanic children were significantly more likely to say they would advise the friend to keep the baby.

Seventy percent of the students in this age group, however, said the pregnant girl should have the final say in an abortion.

  • Older children in the study were more likely to say they would cheat, lie or steal, drink under age, and adopt more libertarian stances in their decisions about sexuality.
  • Hispanic children were oriented more toward self-restraint in their responses to the hypothetical dilemmas than either white or black children.

Children's 'Moral Compasses'

The survey identified five types of "moral compasses" that children rely on in making decisions.

The largest proportion of children--25 percent--were described as "civic humanists," meaning that they make moral judgments that are intended to serve the common good.

Twenty percent were identified as "conventionalists," basing their decisions on accepted social practices and tending to follow the advice of authority. An additional 18 percent were described as "expressivist," doing whatever satisfies certain emotional feelings and psychological needs. And 16 percent were seen as "theistic," making moral judgments in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The smallest number, 10 percent, were described as "utilitarian," meaning, according to the researchers, that they make moral judgments based on their perceived self-interests.

The children's moral orientation was found in the study to be related to their social background and life experiences. Older children, for example, were more likely to use expressivist or civic-humanist moral compasses. Black children and children from poor neighborhoods were more likely to make decisions from a theistic perspective.

The moral orientation children used had an important impact on their decisionmaking. While 61 percent of the children from a theistic orientation said they would not cheat, only 38 percent of children using utilitarian assumptions rejected the idea of cheating. Similarly, 54 percent of children from an expressivist orientation said they would have sex, but only 27 percent of conventionalist children said they would.

The statement that "homosexual relations are okay if that is a person's choice" was accepted by 39 percent of children from a civic-humanist orientation, but only 12 percent of children using theistic assumptions.

Role of Family, Religion

The most important influence in children's lives, the study found, was the extended family--parents and close relatives. Virtually all--95 percent--of those questioned said they had parents who cared what happened to them, and 64 percent said they would turn to parents for moral advice.

One-third of the respondents, however, did not live with both a father and a mother, and 52 percent were described as "latchkey kids," left alone for much of the day while parents worked. While 62 percent in the study said they were disciplined by their parents when they did something wrong, the remainder said they often got away with misbehavior without punishment.

Though adults were seen as an important source of emotional support, the children, in general, were less likely to turn to them for moral advice than to friends.

Forty-three percent reported that friends were their first preference for advice, and older respondents tended to rely more heavily on friends. While 23 percent of elementary-age children named friends as their preferred source of advice, 58 percent of high-school students did.

Religion was found to have a "high personal value for children in the ideal," but was less decisive in the practical shaping of their moral choices, according to the study. It was less influential among older children than younger ones.

Although 39 percent of the children said they prayed daily, and 34 percent said religious leaders had been an important influence in their lives, only 2 percent said they would turn to God first in resolving a moral predicament, and only 3 percent said they would go to a religious leader for help.

But, regardless of their form of moral orientation, children who frequently attended religious ceremonies or stressed religion's importance were found to be less likely to foresee instances in which they would lie, cheat, steal, drink alcohol under age, or make libertarian decisions about sexual behavior.

Affluence and Poverty

Throughout the findings, the researchers said, "the voices of children from the poorest of circumstances are most distinct because of the underlying tone of despair and futility for some."

One finding bearing this out was that, although only 1 percent of the children over all said there were no adults who really cared for them, 7 percent of the poorest children felt this way.

Affluent children, on the other hand, revealed the greatest tendency toward uncertainty when facing moral dilemmas. Affluent high-school juniors and seniors were three times more likely than other young people, for example, not to know what to do when presented with a drink at a party. And 44 percent of the affluent respondents said they did not know what advice they would give to a pregnant friend, compared with 32 percent over all.

"One possible surmise from this evidence," the study suggests, "is that wealth is a generator of options, moral as well as social and economic, but that such options engender ambiguity and uncertainty as much as freedom."

Gender Distinctions

The study also noted significant differences related to gender. Girls, for example, were much more sexually restrained than boys, being half as likely to have sex in a long-term relationship and twice as likely to resist petting on a third date.

Girls also were more likely to be honest, more committed to public service, and more likely to choose personal satisfaction as a chief criterion in selecting a job. Boys were more likely to choose financial gain.

Boys, however, were twice as likely as girls to agree with the statement, accepted by 8 percent of respondents over all, that "suicide is all right, because a person has a right to do whatever he wants with himself."

Other significant findings included the following:

  • Problems children were most concerned with were not the same as those adults view as critical for them, such as teenage pregnancy, suicide, and school violence. Instead, most cited worries and pressures related to fulfilling the expectations of adults, with 60 percent to 80 percent citing pressure to obey parents and teachers, to get good grades, to prepare for the future, and to earn money.
  • Children have confidence in the ability of social institutions to solve America's problems. Ninety-two percent expressed confidence in the family, 89 in education, and 85 in government. The areas gaining least confidence were business and the press.
  • Children's sense of public responsibility was high--86 percent said they would vote in every election and 76 percent said they would give regularly to charity.
  • Commitment to military or voluntary service was substantially lower than commitment to other civic responsibilities. Nineteen percent said they would not fight for their country under any circumstances, and 60 percent were unwilling to volunteer for national service of any kind for a year.
  • Most children were family-oriented and not work-oriented, with 35 percent choosing "getting married and having a good family" as their most important personal aspiration, while 13 percent chose "making money'' and 6 percent chose "meaningful work."

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