Beliefs Culture Opinion

COMMENTARY: Why good kids do bad things

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Dale Hanson Bourke is author of”Turn Toward the Wind”and publisher of Religion News Service. She is the mother of two boys.)

UNDATED _ It hardly surprises us anymore when a kid from a poor, inner-city neighborhood goes astray. A steady diet of poverty and violence often seems to beget kids who lose track of good and evil.

But when kids from middle-class suburbs, upstanding families, and decent schools go wrong, that, as we say, is a story. We examine their smiling faces in yearbook pictures, listen intently to friends who describe their accomplishments and demeanor, and take seriously the notion that some external force must have driven them from their solid moorings.

Those of us who are parents search a little harder for clues to what went wrong. How could kids who look like our children do something so unthinkable? And worse, is there something we are missing in our families? Could our own little darlings be capable of despicable acts? Have we overlooked some sign that something isn’t quite right?

Robert Coles, one of the foremost authorities on child psychiatry, believes that many of us, in fact, are missing something and may continue to remain clueless until we face a crisis.

In his latest book,”The Moral Intelligence of Children,”released this week by Random House, Coles points out that a child can receive excellent grades, athletic honors and even leadership awards, yet remain morally bankrupt _ unable and unwilling to distinguish right from wrong.

Even worse, he offers case studies of children and teen-agers who have all the signs of”success”by the standards of their parents and teachers but who have undernourished souls and consciences.

One little girl Coles studied was caught cheating repeatedly. Her teacher was hesitant to take on the upstanding family and made excuses for the child’s behavior. Eventually the girl’s parents were informed and their reaction was to defend their daughter and to eventually seek counseling.

Coles points out that while this situation may have psychological components, it is essentially a moral challenge. Yet these parents, like many, resist using moral language, assuming the child already understands those issues and instead is dealing with psychological stress.

For parents, this book is not only a needed wake up call, but also a helpful tool in raising morally sensitive children.

Coles is brave enough to say that part of a parent’s job is using words like right and wrong, and resisting the moral relativism that seems to grip our society.”The conscience does not descend upon us from on high,”he writes.”We learn a convincing sense of right and wrong from parents who are themselves convinced as to what ought to be said and done and under what circumstances. … Without such parents, a conscience is not likely to grow up strong and certain.” And while teachers, coaches and others can be strong influences in a child’s life, Coles never lets parents off the hook. Absent or detached parents, according to Coles, cause”not only psychological pain but moral loss”.

Coles has no patience for parents who espouse the”do as I say, not as I do”philosophy.”… The child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality _ or lack thereof,”he points out.

Neither does he advocate legalism or believe that rules answer all of life’s questions.”We don’t conquer this world’s mischief and wrongdoing and malice once and for all and then forever after enjoy the moral harvest of that victory,”he admits.

While Coles offers plenty of reason for parents to be concerned, he offers a great deal of hope and tells many positive stories as well. He believes that children are interested from an early age in morality and says parents may need to do little more than”fan the flame”at appropriate moments.

In fact, simply being aware of the need to nurture moral intelligence, just as we would encourage good eating habits or good grades, seems to go a long way toward developing children who are truly compassionate, unselfish and have a desire to choose what is right, even when it isn’t easy.

Not only rewarding public honors, but also praising unnoticed acts of compassion can send our children the message that their moral development matters to us. When we tell them we are proud of their good deeds, we help define success in a way that benefits them and society.

Perhaps one of the most chilling extrapolations of Coles premise is what will happen to the”successful”kids who achieve much, yet remain morally deficient. The best and the brightest will be the leaders of tomorrow. There they will be smiling symbols of what our society values and what we, as parents, saw fit to emphasize during their growing up years.