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The Moral Intelligence of Children

From Chris Wayan's journal, 1999/5/24

I just read Robert Coles's book The Moral Intelligence of Children. Coles claims kids today aren't so much materially or even emotionally starved--they're starved for moral guidance. But his most memorable poster child, a teenage mom, doesn't need moral guidance at all. She's just in constant physical danger: her brother forced into a gang, her father vanished, her mom dead, her grandma shot on the street. The adults around her sure need some morality, yeah, but what she needs is a fucking bodyguard and a gun-free neighborhood. Basic safety. That comes only when the community as a whole agrees violence is intolerable and puts down those who do it. And that hasn't happened--quite the opposite. Machismo and brutality rule because adults tolerate them.

His second example, of middle-class pothead kids, don't seem to lack moral guidance either, just guides who really ARE moral. The kids don't respect the moralizing of the adults around them because they're sleazier than the kids they preach at, and the kids know it. Not morally blind or adrift. Betrayed.

No personal flashbacks here, of course.

Next, Coles runs us through "typical" kids' moral development. It's nothing like mine. None of his examples are kids like me.

Oh, wait--here's one. Coles meets a boy who's six, in second grade, and seriously into astronomy. Coles assumes at first that it's some form of voyeuristic acting-out or displacement, or a retreat into intellectuality. But the kid makes connections between astronomy, his view of God, moral values, and daily life. Coles uses him as an example of what kids are capable of at that age, though his vocabulary alone shows he's severely gifted. In fact, obsession with astronomy and one's place in the universe starting around five is one of the signature traits Hollingworth identifies in her study CHILDREN ABOVE 180 IQ. For a child psychologist writing a book on kids to misinterpret two red flags of a child prodigy with special needs is like an MD failing to recognize Down's syndrome. And using a child prodigy as an example for normal kids is as silly as using a Down's kid as your developmental standard!

At this point I stop and notice just how mad I am. This can't all be about Robert Coles!

Oh. Jealousy. I'm mad at the difference between this kid and me. I was socially backward, self-centered, angry, suspicious, where he's open, considerate, socially subtle--all the luxuries of the fundamentally safe and secure. I envy him.

Though envy wasn't my first reaction: shame was, shame I wasn't like him. Only after a minute, thinking back, do I realize I WAS like him: I was ethical, empathetic, even warm, in the shamanic dream worlds I explored--but in the day, I acted very artificially, rudely even, because I WANTED to keep humans at a distance. Because in my childhood world they were unreliable--even dangerous.

Coles' portrait makes me mad for good reason. I was crippled socially--this child astronomer is much like me at age six--but soon after, my classmates and teachers taught me to fear others and hide my feelings. I DID do what Coles mistakenly assumes this kid does: flee intolerable emotional pain into worlds where my tormentors couldn't follow. I still do this, and it cripples me in THIS world. Yet I had to pull back, to survive then, and maybe I still have to. Gifted though I am, when I go out in your world too much, I usually get sick. What I perceive as a tolerable level of fear or emotional pain, my body reacts to--violently. For me, humanity's only tolerable in tiny doses.

And I don't think that's a rare experience for child prodigies, grown up or not. If you're one, don't let the experts tell you how to cope; if Coles is any indication, psychologists are as clueless today as they were back in Hollingworth's day--or Freud's.

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