Robert Coles: From Tykes to Tolstoy
Presents an interview with Robert Coles, author of 50 book and a
professor at Both Harvard and Duke Universities, regarding his book about
the moral and spiritual life of kids entitled 'The Moral Intelligence of
Children.' What the book is all about; Reason why Coles become interested
in children; Cole's most admired persons.
By PT Staff published May 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Few physicians have written as extensively and eloquently on the moral andspiritual life of kids as child psychiatrist Robert Coles, M.D., whose most recent meditation on the subject was recently Published as The Moral Intelligence of Children (Random House). Author of more than 50 books, and a professor at both Harvard and Duke Universities, the 67-year-old Coles shows no signs of slowing down: He's just co-authored yet another book, this time with his three sons.
PT: You've spoken with thousands of kids over the years. Do they still surprise you?
RC: Hardly a week passes that I don't find myself thinking, "Look what he said." If you find yourself bored by children, you're not really observing them.
PT: What's the most common misconception parents have?
RC: A lot of parents underestimate how watchful children are and how that watchfulness determines their behavior. That's what The Moral Intelligence of Children is about. If we want our children to be moral, the first thing we have to do is figure out who we are and what we want transmitted to the next generation. Because we're going to convey that--not by what we say, but by how we behave.
PT: How did you become interested in children?
RC: I had planned to become an English teacher. I wrote my college thesis on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, who was a pediatrician, and sent him a copy. He invited me to meet him, and I was so taken with him and his energy as a physician that I decided to go to medical school and become the kind of doctor he was. I started in pediatrics, but I had trouble being tough, giving shots. I went to see him and he said, "Why don't you try working with kids psychologically instead of medically?"
PT: Why do you think you've been so successful?
RC: People used to ask my wife about how I did my work, and she would say, "Children feel sorry for him. They're not sure what he's trying to do, so they try to help him out. The truth is, he doesn't quite know what he's doing while he's doing it; he's conscientious about leaving himself open to experience."
PT: Whom do you most admire?
RC: Dr. Williams obviously had a great effect on me. Also [social activist] Dorothy Day--I worked in her soup kitchen when I was in medical school. And Walker Percy, another writer-physician. I've written about all of these people as testimony of my admiration. Anna Freud and Erik Erikson are the two people in my field I've most admired. Who else? Alec Wilkinson and Ian Frazier, who are literary journalists, and certain poets, such as Adam Zagajewski.
PT: I thought that there might be more psychiatrists.
RC: I'm no great fan of academic social science. The kind of social science I like is that done by people like Erikson and Anna Freud. It's not only the work they did, but the way they wrote it up. They had the sensibility of a Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot--they could accommodate themselves to the complexities and ironies of life.
PT: What are you most looking forward to?
RC: I'm editing a quarterly magazine, Double Take. It's an effort to render the world around us--as as it is and as it might be--through good fiction, photography, poetry, and nonfiction. I've poured my mind, heart and soul into this with my coeditor, Alex Harris.
PT: Speaking of good writing, a colleague of mine insists that the greatest psychologist of all time was I William Shakespeare.
RC: He's absolutely right. Freud suggested Dostoevski, but Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Eliot--they'll all do.
Double Take is published by Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies; for more information call 1-800-964-8301. A one-year subscription costs $24.
PHOTO (COLOR): Coles at work: "My wife used to say, `Children feel sorry for him. They're not sure what he's trying to do, so they try to help him out.'"