Making Good Kids

Author: Carolyn Alessio


The computer screens pictured in my students’ project read “Heaven” and “Hell.” Diego, a senior at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, had made a modern storyboard on Hamlet for my British Literature class. Surveying the project, I saw that Diego and a partner had focused on the crucial moment when Hamlet comes across his murderous Uncle Claudius praying, and Hamlet must decide whether to kill him right then. A Super Soaker was the potential weapon.

Standing there in my sunny classroom just off an industrial street, I was impressed by my students’ creative interpretation of the young prince’s moral quandary. What also struck me was the scene’s backdrop. Many of our students at Cristo Rey (Spanish for “Christ the King”) live close to the poverty line in cramped, substandard quarters with their immigrant families. In contrast, Diego’s house appeared spacious (though modest) and elegantly arranged.

“Diego, you have a really nice house,” I said.

“I’m grateful for it,” he said, without missing a beat.

The poignancy of that remark made me pause. Diego’s father had passed away suddenly two years earlier, and his mother toiled long hours at an envelope factory. Every day Diego picked up his younger sister at her school and guided her home on public transportation through gang-weary neighborhoods.

None of these experiences seemed to have made Diego particularly bitter. Instead, he was well-liked by his peers and frequently helped me in the classroom in my ham-handed attempts at using technology. (Some of his expertise came from playing sports-video games.) Whether or not he was aware of it, Diego had already made some wise life decisions by the age of 18.

As a teacher at an inner-city school, and a mother of two young children growing up in the city, I often wonder how one raises good, reflective kids like Diego. Dr. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author and Harvard child psychiatrist, refers to this “goodness” of character in children as “moral intelligence”—an almost instinctive sense of concern for others. Coles and other experts in child development often link this ability to having connected families and communities, and being active in a religious faith. These relationships, Coles says, increase a young person’s awareness of the larger world.

“It’s a great gift to a child to be offered some kind of inwardness that makes moral and psychological sense,” he says.

A two-way street

It would be wrong to think of moral education as a one-way street, in which we learned adults try to pour our values into the waiting vessel of our children’s and teenagers’ minds. In this spirit, I have often included a quote by William Butler Yeats on my course syllabi: “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.” Even if we could take the bucket approach, though, it wouldn’t produce the sort of free, independent, creative young people we’d like to see. How kids actually develop their morals is more complicated and more rewarding.

Of course, younger children discover and test the world in different ways than adolescents. But both have one thing in common: They’re invested in our responses. Though we might not always react as we would have liked, in the process we can learn from young people as much as they learn from us, if not more.

There is no simple recipe for raising moral children, no foolproof What to Expect for the First 21 Years or Dummies’ Guide. Some books on infants and toddlers almost imply that if we get the first few years right, everything else will fall into place. Younger children may make more immediate and constant demands, but it’s easier to set bedtimes or enforce manners at the dinner table than to command a teenager to make good moral choices. We know we cannot always keep our adolescents away from the proverbial locked bedroom with blaring music, the midnight alley and the unmonitored website.

While many of the situations young people find themselves in aren’t as dramatic as, say, Hamlet’s decision to avenge his father’s murder, navigating them still calls for self-knowledge, a sense of your own beliefs and relationships with others. As Polonius put it, it’s the ability to “thine own self be true.” The most self-aware students I have worked with were able to show gratitude, like Diego. They also expressed themselves in an honest but respectful manner, even during heated class discussions.

It is rare and difficult for young people to develop these qualities, especially in a technological age. While I don’t necessarily see access to new media and technology as the Voldemort of moral development, I believe that watching programs like South Park and Chappelle’s Show or logging onto MySpace requires an understanding of irony and your own ethics that’s beyond the reach of many adolescents (and sometimes even adults).

As Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, writes about MTV’s popular documentary series My Super Sweet Sixteen, “There’s certainly some parody intended in the way the rich kids whine, but this subtlety is likely to slide past the average 15-year-old watching the show.”

Most adolescents simply haven’t developed their own filters. They might be street-smart about everything from gang signs to birth control but haven’t yet laid a foundation in which they can competently judge things that otherwise might be a bad influence.

This gradual evolution makes sense, researchers say. Young people are still figuring out their ethics until the seemingly late age of 28, according to Darcia Narvaez, associate professor of psychology at Notre Dame. Narvaez, who has also trained as a Lutheran minister, traces her ideas back to the ancient Greek philosophers as well as recent findings about the brain: “As Aristotle points out, you need guidance from mentors for building your virtue until you’re able to do it yourself,” she says. “Until you’re able to actually select environments, friendships, activities, work, leisure, whatever it is, you can forget you have to maintain your virtue and you will lose it.”

Building your personality

Selecting the right moral environment might sound Victorian when talking about adolescents, but Narvaez says some newer technology can even facilitate it. “Parents who hear from their kids a lot on cell phones is not a bad thing, because brain researchers are saying that the college years are very similar to the toddler years in terms of brain development,” she says.

“In the toddler years you need lots of help,” she adds. In college, you’re also building your personality, “and you can do damage to yourself by drinking or playing violent video games or [viewing] pornography or gambling.”

Narvaez doesn’t just theorize about the effects of violent video games on young people. Along with some of her students, she builds video games and uses them in her research. One recent project involved asking Notre Dame undergraduates to play certain games, some of which offered “pro-social” or positive opportunities like giving medicine to a sick person. The results indicate that, unlike with playing a violent or “neutral” video game, aggression faded to virtually nothing after the students played the positive game.

Even the most positive video game can’t substitute for a strong community. Narvaez, who was a featured speaker in a 2002 White House conference on Character and the Community, repeatedly says that character formation is not done in isolation. Parents, neighbors, pastors, teachers and coaches constantly model behavior and decision-making. Robert Coles refers to this constant exchange as the “mutuality of moral guidance.”

As a parent and teacher, I find this responsibility humbling and sometimes terrifying, especially when I’m gulping grande Starbucks vanilla lattes during Lent or finishing up grading homework assignments minutes before class begins. I also know that I am in a rare position to learn. As Coles told me, “What you’re learning from those children is the moral and psychological possibilities that are inside us. That’s why it’s so instructive to be a teacher.”

Sometimes the lessons come in an unwanted form. Nearly five years ago, one of my students was shot and killed. If the worst thing that can happen to a parent is to lose a child, then the worst thing that can happen to a teacher is to lose a student, especially through violence. Sergio, who was 17 when he was shot while riding in a friend’s car, had been one of my brightest and most antic students. Once, during a discussion about evolution, he called out, “God made us as monkeys.” Another time, when I was introducing the word “esoteric,” he said, “Ms. Alessio, you should throw a scarf across your neck when you say that.”

I saw great potential in Sergio’s intellect, as did many of my colleagues. Several months before his death, Sergio scored one of the highest PSATs in the school’s history. The week before he died, I had spoken with him about the possibility of applying to a summer camp for high school students at Notre Dame.

Before Sergio’s murder, I had known that my students lived in neighborhoods that struggled with violence, but at school I was lulled into thinking that they would continue to be protected when they went home and out into their often-rough neighborhoods. Sergio’s death remains unsolved by police. Killings of this kind are often associated with gang involvement, but our school is quite vigilant about crime, and those close to my former student say that he was not a gang member.

Sadness and gratitude

Regardless of how it happened, I took Sergio’s death personally. It was an indictment of my role as a teacher and mentor, and even my overall idealism. Walking through the hallways, I felt panicked and mildly dazed, wondering what I could have done to help keep him safe. In contrast, the students helped plan elaborate memorial services and erected a makeshift altar at his locker with photos, notes and memorabilia from The Simpsons (Sergio’s favorite TV show). On the day of the funeral, several classmates wore T-shirts bearing Sergio’s name and the air-brushed image of a rosary.

At first I thought the contrast between my students’ and my responses might be due to a difference in maturity levels. Soon, though, I realized that the students were equally as grief-stricken but not as shocked by the death of a young person. While I had been fortunate to live 35 years without experiencing anything as devastating, a sobering majority of the students at our school have either witnessed or been affected by the violent death of someone young. The terror I felt after Sergio’s death was only a glimpse of what my students coped with on a regular basis.

I will always be saddened and confused by Sergio’s death, but it has taken me a while to be grateful that he lived. I am ashamed to admit this. It has helped immensely to be surrounded by wise young people who are heartbreakingly adept at dealing with tragedy. Every year at our school’s elaborate Mass for Día de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, Sergio’s name always appears in large, handwritten letters on our list of people to remember.

The students at our school are often more expressive than most teenagers I’ve encountered, especially in matters of faith. In the classroom, I have heard students pray for everyone from a neighbor who might be deported to a cousin’s baby who was born prematurely. Sometimes the prayers startle me with their immediate feedback on school. Last spring I heard a young woman pray for “my anger just now out in the hallway.”

Some might say that the personal petitions are an indirect attempt to inform me and their classmates about their personal lives. That may be partially so, and at times I have gleaned important information from them. But standing on the side of the classroom listening, I also hear a sincerity and urgency that I haven’t always encountered in more academic conversations.

“Sociologically, people are opening themselves up in a way that’s different than saying, ’Let’s have a small group where we share our autobiographies,’” says Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame and author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. “It’s a legitimate way to express ’I’m fearful about something.’”

Common wisdom suggests that teenagers reject faith and just about everything else but music, TV and the Internet. But Smith, who directs the National Study of Youth and Religion, discovered some surprising, contrary trends when he interviewed hundreds of teens nationally about faith. Most young people he spoke with identified themselves as being a certain religion, even if they were not especially active in it.

“The best predictor of what a teenager looks like religiously is what their family looks like,” Smith says. “It goes against the stereotype that adolescence is all about rebellion.”

Identifying with a specific religion did not mean that the teens understood much about their faiths. An alarming majority of the young people that Smith and his team interviewed knew little about their religion and the theology behind it. Many Catholic youths appeared particularly lacking in knowledge.

In contrast, Smith found that the young people who were more involved in their faith tended to show hope, confidence and security, even in trying circumstances.

The working of faith

Robert Coles says he observed that sort of faith-driven confidence in 1960 while working with Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old girl who was one of the first African-American students to desegregate the New Orleans public schools. The local community responded with outrage and threats, and each day federal marshals had to escort the little girl into the school. For several months Ruby attended school alone, and Coles began to visit her house to work with her.

At first, Coles says, he had wanted to help Ruby process her horrible experience, and to use his psychiatric training to help her “mobilize” her likely feelings of anger and resentment. But Ruby astonished him: One day, when Coles asked her how she felt about the angry mobs she encountered each morning, she said, “Course, I pray for them.” Thunderstruck, Coles questioned her further, and the little girl mentioned that people had hated Jesus, too, and said horrible things about him, but he still prayed for them.

“There she was praying for them, and that was the ultimate lesson for me,” Coles says, “to learn from this little girl who knew a lot more about theology and philosophy and religion and its history than I knew.” He says that exchange, which he calls a “revelatory moment,” shaped the rest of his career.

Without Ruby’s faith and her confidence to apply it, she might have crumbled or been tempted to respond with violence. As some experts point out, watering down religion or de-emphasizing it with young people can poorly equip them for even everyday conflict. Our modern culture has tended to make students scared to express opinions that might differ from others, Christian Smith said. Yet it’s especially important to preserve that ability to communicate one’s beliefs when talking about potentially tense matters such as ethics, religion and politics.

The conversations don’t have to be a brawl, Smith notes, and it’s important for adults to show them the way. “A lot of teens don’t have examples of people who have a good flat-out argument that’s humane,” he says. Many adolescents, Smith adds, fear expressing contrary views and therefore remain silent. It’s up to an adult to express these skills, he says, regardless of the ideas or opinions the students present.

One of the ways in which I’m most comfortable connecting to faith and ethics in the classroom is through challenging, edgy literature. It isn’t just Hamlet that presents opportunities for intense debate. I love talking with my students about the corruption of many of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales compared with the purity of the unassuming Parson. We laugh—and cringe—at some authors’ satires of corrupt individuals and systems, then theorize about their greater messages. When we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” for instance, we look both at the ways in which Swift calmly proposes eating babies in 18th-century Ireland to solve hunger, and we also analyze the savage commentary on the relationship between Ireland and England.

In a modified way, I extend this approach to home. I love to read books with my 5-year-old daughter, and the simpler material sometimes prompts important conversations. Charlotte and I read a variety of titles, from Dr. Seuss romps to fairy tales and, yes, those saccharine Care Bear books. When it comes to ethics and morality, some children’s books can be too overt, didactic enough that even a kindergartener may be inclined to rebel against their messages. But occasionally that perfect combination comes along: lovely writing and the impetus for thoughtful discussions, even with a young child.

The Three Questions

One of these books is The Story of Ruby Bridges, in which Coles vividly illustrates young Ruby’s pivotal year. Another is Jon Muth’s The Three Questions. The book, which was recommended to me by a Cristo Rey colleague and Notre Dame alumna, is based on a story by Tolstoy. Nikolai, the boy narrator, says he wants to be a good person, but he’s not always sure of the best way to do it. He poses three questions: “When is the best time to do things?”; “Who is the most important one?”; and “What is the right thing to do?”

He doesn’t find out immediately, and even then he’s not cognizant during the key experience—saving a mother panda and her child from injury during a storm. But through humor (Nikolai has a contrary dog friend, Pushkin), persistence and the subtle guidance of a wise turtle, Leo, the boy arrives at an answer.

Presented against a background of calming watercolors, Leo tells Nikolai: “Remember then that this is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”

Ten years ago, when my husband and I were preparing for our wedding, we met with the priest who was going to celebrate the Mass. In discussing the service, the priest brought up the petition for us to be good parents.

My future husband and I nodded. We wanted children, we said, but I admitted to having some fears. “I’m not really sure how to be a good parent,” I remember telling the priest. “Is there any perfect way?”

“Carolyn,” the priest said, “we’d be praying for you to be good parents.”

I loved the wit and insight of his comment. It’s a perspective I try to maintain, whether I’m attempting to comb my daughter’s hair while also feeding my infant son, or explaining to a frustrated teenager in a loud cafeteria why her paper on Beowulf needs work.

I value the honest demands and scrutiny of young people, but I am also challenged by them. This used to seem like an impossible contradiction in my life and career, but recently I’ve begun to sense a sort of logic.

“There are so many of us who don’t quite know how to live up to the very things we claim to believe in,” says Coles. “And of course children give us an opportunity to practice what we preach in a daily way in the way we engage with them, and—I hope and pray—spur them on both psychologically but also morally and spiritually.”

Carolyn Alessio teaches at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. Her articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the 2003 anthology The Pushcart Prize XXVII: Best of the Small Presses.