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How do children develop moral values? Why do some from severely disadvantaged backgrounds rise above dog-eat-dog morality? Why do some adults retain the idealism of their teens while most lapse into indifference? How do children from different economic backgrounds define character? These are some of the questions Coles attempts to illuminate with a glancing, erratic spotlight. He draws on his 25 years of conversations with children that have already formed the basis of prior books (the Children in Crisis series) as well as on recent interviews directed specifically to the questions examined here. One of the earliest of his studies was of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who single-handedly braved howling mobs to attend a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans; she smiled at her tormentors and prayed for them. There are two impoverished children from Rio de Janiero's slums who exhibit remarkable selflessness and sensitivity to others despite their brutalizing environment. What strikes the reader is the children's stoicism and the strength they draw from their religious faith. Faith in God did not enter into the equation when Coles asked selected students of an elite prep school ""What is character?"" They stressed adherence to principles and willingness to risk unpopularity from them along with open-mindedness and fairness to others. But churchgoing and faith in God were mentioned by a group of students from an all-black Atlanta high school, who also stress getting a job and holding it, supporting a family and setting an example for one's children as the true tests of character. Coles raises interesting questions, and although he sheds some light on some, the subject is so amorphous, the information so variegated, that the reader is left wondering if anything's been learned except that the question of character development is filled with unanswered--and perhaps unanswerable--questions.

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 1985
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown