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Think. Discuss. Act. Ethics

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Review: Children Know About Moral Hypocrisy

Coles, R. (1986, February 17). Children know about moral hypocrisy: A conversation with robert coles. U.S. News & World Report, pp. 61-62.


The Challenger shuttle disaster had an impact upon children that raised questions about “why people do what they do and what happens when people suffer tragedy.” These are moral concerns. In classrooms and in homes, this kind of event will have moral consequences.

Today’s children experience the troubles and struggles of the world, no matter how well protected their homes. And they are “stronger and tougher than we think…capable of more moral reflection and political savvy than we give them credit for. Children know about moral hypocrisy: They hear one line being preached and see another line being lived.” An eight-year-old in Ireland saw through the religious fraud in Northern Ireland as a shrewd observer of the moral and political issues. He kept telling Coles ‘how embarrassed Jesus would be if He were to come…and see what’s going on in His name…’

States Coles in the article:

We discourage the moral lives of children because we don’t want that moral sensibility annoying us or getting in our way. So we tell them to shape up and be quiet. Telling them to tune out doesn’t work, and if it does, the cost is high. They become less involved as citizens and more involved in their own private pursuits, which is not what a democracy is about.

Amid the violence kids see in the media there are some serious moral issues being worked through…Parents have a great deal of moral leverage over their children. If parents really want to teach their children certain values, they can resist the magnetic force of the media. They can sit down with them and watch some programs. They can point out why they think programs are destructive or absurd or silly or wasteful…not simply to say, ‘This is bad’ or ‘This is good’ but to offer good reasons for their decisions.

I find children today just as morally attentive and interested as they always were. The saddest thing, at times, is the way some of our children get distracted by the endless cycle of material goods that come their way-trying almost feverishly to own one or another doll or mechanical gadget as if not only their pleasure but their very dignity depended on it. Children (in Northern Ireland, Poland, Canada-even England and France) don’t quite have that lust for things that our children seem to have-not only our well-to-do children but our poorer children. It’s part of our culture, it seems to me. I’ve been touched by what [parents and teachers] can do to combat this by emphasizing to children that there are things more important than piles and piles of toys and gadgetry-namely relationships and talking, reading a book or even watching, yes, a television program, and then thinking about it.

Coles realizes the hassles that can arise for an unsupported child to hold on to moral and political views-how easy it is to slip into prevailing cynicism. But he also sees a continuation of the American spirit left in children-the spirit of idealistic inquiry and speaking up about what is in their minds and hearts. He is an obvious supporter of moral development in the classroom.

Books of Robert Coles include The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children. Based on ten years of research, the books develop and document the ideas of this article.


  1. Parents, teachers, counselors, and youth leaders need to recognize the moral interest of children and youth. Developmental psychologies or humanistic philosophies should not deter helpers from going beyond clarification to education of moral values.
  2. We must recognize, too, that the idealism and simplicity of children may threaten us. We must be willing for them to uncover our moral hypocrisy. And we ourselves must have somewhere to go with today’s crucial moral issues-not all the answers, but principles and directions. Finally, we need stories-from the Bible, from history, and from our own experiences as specifics to illustrate those principles and directions.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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