New York Times
March 18, 2003
Scientists Explore the Molding of Children's Morals

long with their academic education, students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in Indianapolis have another field of study: character education.

Each school displays a poster listing what the district has identified as the "life skills for building character," including honesty, fairness and trustworthiness. Teachers look for ways to reinforce these traits each day.

Classroom discussions focus on the moral strengths and weaknesses of characters in the books that students have read. Students make quilts and write songs celebrating the life skills. They get buttons and other rewards for putting the skills into practice.

While the Lawrence Township schools are exceptional in the scope of their initiative, they are not alone in their effort to calibrate the moral compasses of their students. Over the last few years, schools in 48 states have introduced character education programs in the hope of bolstering students' resolve to resist the temptation to lie, cheat, bully, use drugs and behave immorally in other ways. The Department of Education has promoted these efforts by giving $27 million in character education grants since 1995.

Many of the programs draw on some recent research showing that although all children are born with the capacity to be moral, it needs to be nurtured by parents, schools and the community at large. Otherwise, its development is stunted.

Without a firm sense of right and wrong, some experts say, children tend to become cynical, alienated and extremely selfish. They cheat to get ahead, rationalizing that "everybody does it." They lack the social obligation to control their anger when they feel that they have been wronged. In the extreme, tragedies happen, like the massacre at Columbine.

Much of the impetus for character education in schools is a perception that the moral fiber of children as well as adults is unraveling. Two-thirds of Americans think that society is less honest and moral than it used to be, according to "Bowling Alone," published in 2000, by Dr. Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard.

Last year, a poll of 12,000 high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization in Marina del Rey, Calif., found that 74 percent admitted cheating on a test in the previous year.

But some researchers - while not denying that there is considerable room for improvement - say children today are no less moral than their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were as children.

Dr. Elliot Turiel, the author of "The Culture of Morality," published last year, says cheating is just as common today as it was in the 1920's. He compared surveys of students done then with the findings of recent surveys like those of the Josephson Institute and found that the percentage of students who admitted to cheating was roughly the same.

"It may be that kids today are fresh and disobedient in fairly large numbers," said Dr. Turiel, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, "but was it really different in the past? It wasn't with cheating."

Dr. Turiel and other researchers criticize many of the character education programs in schools for being superficial and ineffective. "Morality isn't traits of character but a complicated set of judgments," he said.

Dr. John M. Doris, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, goes as far as to question whether there is such a thing as a moral character. He says that the existence of moral character, described by philosophers as far back as Aristotle, is not supported in the scientific literature today.

In "Lack of Character," a book published in December, Dr. Doris reviews the psychology literature on moral behavior and concludes that character traits have very little bearing on whether a person will act morally. He cites studies that found that a person's willingness to do a good deed - in this case, calling the police to report a street crime - hinges less on character traits like trustworthiness or altruism than on specific circumstances, whether the person is in a hurry, for example.

There is little research showing just what techniques work to nurture morality in children. But the small studies that have been done suggest that discussions that get students working through moral quandaries and community service activities have measurable results.

"High schools that have instituted community service programs report much less misbehavior and drug use," said Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, who is compiling a database of research on character education programs.

Morality means somewhat different things to different people, but researchers who study moral development define it as a triad of emotions, thoughts and actions. Children learn right from wrong from their parents and other authority figures, but moral emotions reinforce this knowledge by making people feel guilty when tempted to tell a lie or fearful that they will get caught stealing or cheating. In that way, moral thoughts and emotions keep people on a steady course of moral actions.

"After hunger, a human's most important need is to know what's virtuous," said Dr. Jerome Kagan, a psychology professor at Harvard, who has studied moral development. But, he says, children's desire to be good can falter when they regularly see people getting away with doing wrong, whether they are bullies on the playground, scientists who fake data or corporate executives who get rich by lying to shareholders.

At the foundation of morality are moral emotions, which many experts believe are inborn. These emotions include empathy, fear and guilt. But it is not until age 2 when children truly begin to understand the meaning of right and wrong.

Dr. Kagan thinks that the timing is due to a burst of growth in the neurons that connect the two hemispheres of the brain and, in so doing, link emotions with judgments. "My view is that this growth is very important because it links feelings, which are in the right hemisphere, with knowledge of right and wrong, which is in the left hemisphere," he said.

Another leap in moral understanding occurs in early adolescence. This is when young people begin to develop a moral philosophy, the moral compass that guides their thoughts and actions and helps them make sense of the jumble of good and bad traits they see in themselves and others.

"When you're 7, you can hold two opposing beliefs simultaneously and not see them as inconsistent - your father can be wonderful, and he can also be a child abuser," Dr. Kagan said. "But when you're 14, you do see these views as inconsistent. Therefore, one belief has to go." This intellectual growth spurt coincides with a growth spurt in the brain in early adolescence, he said, but the specific areas of brain growth that give rise to moral philosophy are not clear.

When people see a "breakdown of morality today," they often mean that people are more inclined to question authority and conventions than they once were, a byproduct of the social upheavals of the past several decades, Dr. Kagan said. But following conventional rules is not necessarily a moral act, any more than breaking the rules is necessarily an immoral act, the researchers say.

Indeed, disobedience can be moral when a rule is immoral. In his book, Dr. Turiel cites groups around the world that have refused to follow unjust laws. Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, some women defied laws against educating girls by holding underground classes. In this case, deception was moral, he says.

In continuing research, Dr. Turiel has found that children as young as 5 are keen enough to see the difference between doing the right thing and simply obeying orders. In experiments, children say that it is wrong to steal or hurt someone, even if an authority figure, like a teacher, tells them to do so.

Dr. Turiel and other researchers caution parents and educators against jumping to the conclusion that disobedience in children is a warning sign of moral decay. Children and teenagers tend to break rules that seem unjust or that simply do not make sense to them, he said.

This does not mean that disobedience should be excused, Dr. Turiel said, but it suggests that a way to get children to behave better - and hone their ability to make moral judgments - is to engage them in a discussion about the rules at home or at school. Such a dialogue, he said, helps children understand the rules, invites them to speak up if they think that a rule is unfair and even gives them a hand in tweaking the rule to eliminate a perceived injustice.

Letting children speak up is not the same as letting them have their way, said Dr. William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford. Permissive parenting is to blame for a lack of morality in children, he said, noting that studies show that such parenting breeds children with poor self-control and a lack of social responsibility, two cornerstones of morality.

But overly strict parenting is no better, said Dr. Damon, author of "The Moral Child" and "Greater Expectations," two books on moral development. Children raised in a "do as I say or else" environment also lack self-control and social responsibility, he said. "You need to talk to kids from their own perspective and use this as a scaffold from which to teach them about our own morals," he said.

But talk is not enough. A crucial component of moral education, Dr. Damon said, is engaging children in positive activities, be they community service, sports, music, theater or anything else that inspires them and gives them a sense of purpose.

"One of the most influential things parents can do is to see that the company their children keep is constructive," Dr. Damon says. "Do things like go camping with your kids, their friends and their friends' parents, or get them together for volunteer efforts."
How can parents tell if their children are on the right track? Two signs should be evident by mid-adolescence, he said. One is a strong, passionate interest. The other is a person who inspires them. "If your teenager doesn't have these things," he said, "you need to get the kid hooked up with the kinds of activities that are likely to light that light. It's different for every kid, but each one has something, a spark, an interest."