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Robert Coles' Theories on Role Models & Moral Development in Children

By Andrea Godbout ; Updated June 13, 2017

For the last 50 years, Robert Coles has been chronicling the lives of children. As a child psychiatrist, teacher, parent and Pulitzer Award-winning author, he has studied children’s lives from multiple angles. The query that drives his research is how to create a moral society in a cultural, political and emotional environment that is often tumultuous, if not downright terrifying. His theories on role models and moral development in children are largely based on first-person stories from his young subjects.


In an interview with David Gergen on the PBS News Hour in 1997, Coles was asked,"How do we promote morality in our children?" “We do it by living it out,” Coles responded. “Any lesson offered a child in (the) 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.” Coles said he believes that children begin to absorb lessons as early as their first year. He sees them watching, questioning and making decisions based on what they observe. According to Coles, parental influence needs to exist as “a kind of moral authority all its own,” but he is adamant that parents stress that they are learning goodness or morality together with their children every day.


Young children use close adults as their models for right and wrong, but as soon as they go off to school other forces act on their moral controls. In a 1990 study published in "Teacher" magazine, Coles described the struggle students experience when faced with moral dilemmas. “Some of them call upon God. Others essentially fall back upon themselves, their own wishes, feelings, interests or moods. Still others look to the world around them, to their neighborhood or community. A certain number look to what is useful for them, what seems to work. The rest struggle with the moral dilemmas they face with no clear-cut form of moral logic or reasoning to help them decide.” As children become adolescents and adults they find it harder to maintain a moral hard line and their “cultural literacy” begins to supersede their “moral literacy.”

Media and Popular Culture

Children are constantly exposed to events and images that may cause them to question their moral beliefs. They see stories about revered athletes using illegal drugs, sexual misconduct by political figures and brutality in war. When asked by Gergen how he advises children who need help interpreting cultural messages, Coles stressed the importance of parental involvement to help children “contend with that culture and take it on directly," and advised parents to approach the situation from the standpoint that it's both parents and children are "who are caught up in this.”

Spirituality and Stories

Much of what Coles has learned about children has come through listening to their stories. He listened to 6-year-old Ruby Bridges tell her story of how it felt to walk through an angry mob of white people on her way to her first day of class in a desegregated school in 1960. Ruby said, “I felt sorry for them.” That simple statement opened Coles’ eyes to the wisdom and comprehension children can possess. Talking with Krista Tippett, host of "On Being" on National Public Radio, Coles described how children ask the questions that adults often place in a spiritual context. “They may be brought up in a secular world,” Coles said, “but they have deep inner sides to them ... which have to do with eternal questions of what’s right and what’s wrong.”

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