Volume > Issue > The Spiritual Life of Children — Part III

The Spiritual Life of Children — Part III


By Robert Coles | January-February 1986

In two previous columns I discussed some of the practical and theoretical difficulties I encoun­tered as I did my “field-work” (as those many home visits with children get called these days) in various places over the past two decades. I was trained at a time when being “value-free” was an ideal much to be sought. “Value-free psychoanalysis,” “objective research,” these were buzz words in the late 1950s as I was doing my hospital residencies in psychiatry and child psychiatry. I have already indicated in several earlier columns (before I began this series of three on “The Spiritual Life of Children”) how much I would eventually learn from some of the poor, embattled children I met, and from their parents, too; and how puzzled I was by the more than occasional evidence of courage and virtue and wisdom I found in them — my sur­prise, of course, being a measure of my preconcep­tions and ignorance, meaning the constraints of the fancy and lengthy education I’d received. I was looking (I’d been trained to look) for “the mark of oppression” (the title of a psychoanalytic book published in the 1950s dealing with “the Negro personality”) and instead I found people of stoic dignity, often enough making do rather shrewdly, patiently, and thoughtfully against great odds. Not that some hadn’t become wayward, badly so — but then, not a few people of great means and consid­erable education also fall behind psychologically, even become villains of one sort or another.

Eventually I decided to study the moral in­volvements of children, and too, their political in­volvements or interests — a way, I thought, of mov­ing from a strictly psychiatric point of view. I use the word “involvements” because I was not pri­marily interested in what children thought about this or that moral principle or political idea. Piaget and others have been quite exhaustively helpful in that regard. I was drawing a distinction (I’d been taught to do so by the children I’d come to know) between what boys and girls (not to mention the rest of us) think and what they actually do. One can respond with the utmost brilliance to the mor­al scenario presented by a researcher (“What would you do if…”) and still, in everyday life, be a fair­ly mean or selfish or self-serving person. I keep quoting Walker Percy’s remark — “one of those people who got all A’s and flunked ordinary liv­ing.” By the same token, I had to come to terms with, say, Ruby, who at six wasn’t capable of any fancy, clever “moral reasoning” or “ethical analy­sis,” but who prayed hard and long and daily for the mob who tormented her: “Please, dear God, forgive those people, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

No matter the psychological reasons for such prayer (fear, anxiety, and so on), the girl managed the deed. Of course, some of us can deliver brilliant lectures on ethical matters, write our books and ar­ticles, and not find such a child’s humble forgive­ness in ourselves, and indeed, be thoroughly arro­gant and insensitive, for all our analytic powers. Such ironies are no surprise to novelists — indeed, they are the stuff of so much fiction. I think I be­gan to realize, in the mid-1970s, that I’d better fol­low the “methodology” of those novelists — set down what I’d see, and not try to banish life’s in­consistencies and paradoxes with various expressions of theoretical legerdemain.

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