The Forgotten “R” – Right Action : The Moral Intelligence of Children

by Patrick on September 14, 2010

Illustration of PatrickWhen I was growing up, I wasn’t good at any of three R’s. I was slow to read. My writing was atrocious and my arithmetic even worse. I never got high marks or recognition for any of the core academic areas. I just wasn’t smart like that.

What I was good at was being kind and compassionate. I spent 20 years in Catholic schools, and I won every award for being like Jesus. If it came to embodying Christian values, I would sweep the category. Strangers would tell my mother I was destined for the priesthood.

Now flash forward 20 years to me roaming through a used bookstore, frantically searching for a book to kill a 3 hour plane ride. I glanced at The Moral Intelligence of Children by Robert Coles, grabbed the hardcover, and jumped in a cab.

I devoured the book for the entire trip.

Coles exerts that morality is an intelligence just like the mathematical or linguistic mind. Just like all academic areas of science, math, reading, and writing some kids just seem to get it and some kids just don’t. I thought back to my childhood, when I wasn’t smart in the “important” areas.

But morality I got. I couldn’t multiply but I knew right from wrong. I was bright in compassion.

I’ve read about emotional intelligence and heard about spiritual intelligence, but moral intelligence was something altogether new.

Moral intelligence is a person’s ability to consider other people. The kids with this moral aptitude make sure to help a classmate whose fallen down. They care about the environment and animals. They help their younger cousins at family events and point out the world’s unfairness and injustices. They worry and care about other people’s feelings.

I’m all for right action and thoughtfulness, but I’ve never put moral aptitude In the same category of adding fractions or properly using prepositional phrases.

But the development of these skills is exactly the same. It requires the same explicit and intentional teaching. And just like the carrying the tens column, it comes easily to some children and will frustrate others to no end.

It’s a learned skill that needs to be nurtured just as much as being able to read. In fact it’s even more important. It needs to be the goal of every parent and every school.

I’ve spent the better part of my weekend tearing through this amazing book and considering its social and moral implications.

But I can’t help but wonder about the current state of our world and country. Perhaps it’s the result of us forgetting to teach our children what’s really important. Maybe we spent too long trying to make sure nine-year-olds had to add complex fractions, instead of teaching them “Right v. Wrong.”

I’m interested in your comments: What lessons do think are most important to be passed on to future generations?