The Moral Life Of America’s Schoolchildren

Is the moral fabric of America’s children unraveling? A landmark survey suggests the answer is yes. But if children’s values truly are hanging by a thread, restoring moral authority to the schools may put them on the mend.
By Jeff Meade — March 01, 1990 5 min read

Robert Coles—eminent child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, friend and confidant of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and what some might describe as a member of the liberal intellectual left—recalls, almost wistfully, the good old days when religion was taught in the schools. In what is perhaps an unguarded moment, he reminisces about the teachers who would lay into him, with parental blessing, at the first sign of disobedience or slackness.

He seems genuinely nostalgic for those long-ago frosty autumn mornings, when the children would line up in the schoolyard--perfectly still little rows of children, like clothespin dolls, with cheeks scrubbed red and clothes clean and patched--and place their right hands over their hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. One nation under God. All that.

To assume from these revelations that Robert Coles, M.D., author of the acclaimed Children of Crisis series, devoted civil rights advocate and friend to Martin Luther King Jr., is lately taking a turn to the right would be to do him a grievous disservice.

Coles is not, and has never been, an advocate of organized prayer or Bible reading in the nation’s classrooms. Nor does he espouse a return to more enthusiastic brutality in the furtherance of children’s education. And he has nothing against the Pledge of Allegiance, although he does not regard it as a test of loyalty.

But in the absence of these solid, reliable symbols of authority, Coles senses a void. Something in America’s homes and schools is missing, and has been missing for years.

Now, a massive new survey--sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America, the Lilly Endowment, and the Mott Foundation, with Coles as the project director--begins to shed light into that vast, empty space. What appears to be missing, quite simply, is a strong, inarguable notion of right and wrong, good and bad. The survey is the first part of a long-term effort designed to gain a better understanding of the moral development of American children.

In the special report that follows, Coles, along with his colleague, sociologist Louis Genevie, analyzes some of the most significant findings of the survey. Their joint effort raises serious questions about the moral character of children, whom we often see as innocent, frequently brutally honest, creatures utterly without guile.

During the fall of 1989, surveyors fanned out across the country, visiting public, private, and parochial schools, in the cities and in the suburbs. During several weeks, they posed more than 90 probing questions to more than 5,000 children in grades 4 through 12. They asked simple questions: Do you believe in God? And they asked some tough ones: Who has the final say if a teenage girl wants an abortion: the girl or her parents?

Most importantly, they asked: How do you decide what is right and wrong? What system of values informs your moral decisions?

The answers reveal a nation of children who do, in fact, have fairly complicated belief systems. But far more often than not, those beliefs run counter to traditional values.

What’s more, there is an unmistakable erosion of children’s faith in, and support for, traditional sources of authority. Although children believe parents, teachers, and religious leaders care for them, increasingly they turn to their peers for guidance on matters of right and wrong. Their decisions are sometimes shocking, but from Coles’s perspective, both as a teacher and an often sharp social critic, perhaps not unexpected.

“I saw an awful lot of kids,’' Coles says, “who are bright, but whose conscience is not all that muscular.’' That this should be so, he believes, reflects in part the moral values of society in general.

In an interview from his home in Concord, Mass., Coles’s observations are fairly pointed. “People tend to romanticize children,’' he says. “So I think this survey will come as a shock.’'

But, he says, some of the parents who will gasp in horror at the corruption of children’s values are, in reality, the inadvertent role models for their children’s slippery beliefs. Winning is everything. Me first. Parents--along with some of our more celebrated white-collar thieves--are often the unknowing font of situational ethics.

“What I think we are seeing here is a conflict,’' he says. “On the one side, kids with a strong belief in the Judeo-Christian religious ethic, and on the other side, [kids] paying very close attention to that ‘get ahead at any cost’ attitude that they’ve picked up in their family lives.’'

This is not to suggest, Coles says, that most children, if given the chance, would lie, cheat, or steal to get ahead. What it means, rather, is that a majority of children have no firm religious or moral code to guide them. Left to their own devices, they may well do the “right’’ thing. But they may do it because it makes them happy, gets them ahead, or seems best for everyone. Often, they seem not so much to be doing what they think is right, but doing what they think grown-ups expect. As adults themselves, they may learn to do the “right’’ things, too. But, again, for all the wrong reasons.

“They’ll learn control for some utilitarian reasons,’' he says. “They’re going to see that Ivan Boesky got caught, so you could get caught.’'

For teachers in particular, then, what is the meaning of the survey? That is not an easy question to answer. One survey, no matter how significant, can never tell the whole story, Coles cautions. For one thing, there is often a difference between what survey respondents say they will do and what they actually do. “It’s one thing to say on a survey questionnaire that you would cheat, and quite another to actually do it.’'

Coles also suspects that, as his team of researchers continue to explore in greater depth the issues raised in the survey, they may find that children are not comfortable with their values. “As we start seeing more and more of these kids, they’re probably going to tell us about their moral anxiety,’' he says.

But Coles believes there is an important role for teachers. He is passionate in his support of moral education. “At Harvard, at least until 1902, it was the mission of the college to educate men of character,’' he says. And, indeed, he adds, moral education is the very heart of education. “Schools,’' he says, “are for the education of the whole person, and it is the responsibility of the schools to inculcate character.’'

Schools, Coles says, have to do far more than merely hand out character awards at graduation. “The leadership awards,’' he notes, “usually go to the best athlete. But character can be defined in a more traditional way, and rewarded.’'

Character, in the traditional sense, was instilled in Coles at a very early age. Hailing back once again to those golden days, he remembers the 4th grade teacher who, on the first day of school, wrote on the blackboard a poem by Sara Teasdale, from which he recalls one line in particular, about the need to have “a heart that never hardens.’'

“Not only did she write it on the board and make us memorize it,’' he says, “but she also explained what it meant.’' And it has stayed with him--as part of his moral compass--ever since.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Moral Life Of America’s Schoolchildren