After 30 Years Plumbing Children's Hearts and Minds, Robert Coles Writes An End to His Life's Greatest Chapter

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is a bright day in Concord, Mass., and Robert Coles is pacing. He may sit down in a moment, he tells the visitor in his study, but he has hurt his back, and standing is more comfortable just now.

"I've been so broken up about Aran," he continues, indicating an 11-year-old English cocker with sorrowful eyes not unlike his master's. "He's sick—he may not make it—and I attribute my back problem to the tossing and turning I did last night worrying about him. I've been wondering if there weren't something a little cuckoo about me with this. I'm so attached to him. Is there something in me that has me so devastated?"

If so, it is a flaw that Coles, 61, long ago turned into a calling. A Harvard professor, child psychiatrist and Pulitzer-prizewinning author, he has spent the past three decades listening to children the world over, feeling for them, and recording their hopes and fears. He has written about black youngsters desegregating Southern schools in the '60s, about children of sharecroppers, children of the middle class, children in South Africa and in war-tom Northern Ireland. It has been, he says, "an effort to explore firsthand, in the world of playgrounds and schools and homes, the way issues like race and class and nationality and historical moment give shape to children's lives."

His books have been criticized by some social scientists because, Coles says, "I don't tabulate results in computers—I just talk to kids and learn from them." More often, though, his unique contribution is praised by his peers. "Bob Coles has been a pioneer in looking at what's strong and resilient about children, as well as what's vulnerable," says Dr. Albert Solnit of the Yale Child Study Center. "He has a special way with them—they feel his empathy. His work blends poetry and science."

Now, with the publication of his new book, Vie Spiritual Life of Children, Coles has announced the completion of his eight-volume project. "I think it would be rash of me to contemplate an infinity of time ahead of me," he says. "And I feel that I've done all I set out to do in my work with children."

The Spiritual Life of Children took seven years to complete, involved more than 1,000 interviews and took Coles and his research team—his wife, Jane, 52, and their three sons, Bobby, 26, Danny, 24, and Michael, 20—from Chattanooga to the slums of Brazil. They talked with Christian, Jewish and Muslim children, as well as with those from agnostic and atheist homes. "We found that children have a powerful curiosity about where we come from, what we are and where we're going—the existential questions all of us are trying to figure out," he says. "I don't think our schools have been sufficiently interested in harnessing the moral passions of children, which are connected to their spiritual life, and which might be used to help them learn."

Though not affiliated with any one religion himself ("Do I believe in God? It depends on the moment of the day"), Coles has been interested in spiritual matters since childhood, when his mother, Sandra, an English teacher, took him regularly to the Episcopal church near their home in Milton, Mass. It was from his engineer father, Philip, that he learned to be curious about the way the world lives. "Dad would take my brother and me on walks through different neighborhoods and talk to us about George Orwell and what a shrewd social observer he was," Coles remembers.

Both parents instilled in Coles a love of reading, and he initially considered a career teaching English. Meeting the physician-poet William Carlos Williams changed his mind. "I had sent him the thesis I wrote on his poem Paterson," Coles says, "and he wrote back, on a prescription: 'Not bad—for a Harvard student.' A week later I was down there in Paterson, N.J., and he took me on his rounds. I loved the way he spent his life going from door to door, meeting people, learning from them, healing them. I decided, 'If this is what a doctor is like, I'd like to be one.' "

Medical school, though, turned out to be trying. He found he most enjoyed treating children, "but I had trouble being tough with them," he remembers. "Williams said to me, 'I don't think you have the iron in you to do this.' I said, 'I don't think so either. I feel like crying when they cry.' " Concentrating on child psychiatry helped, but Coles found the field to be "the possession of the wealthy only and all too bound to abstractions. I wanted to bring it out of the highfalutin Ivy League towers and into the mainstream of American living."

It took a chance encounter in 1961 to show him how. He had graduated from Columbia University medical school, completed his psychiatric training and was heading up an Air Force psychiatric hospital in Mississippi when he came upon 6-year-old Ruby Bridges. "I was on my way to a medical meeting in New Orleans," he says, "and suddenly I saw this little black child going into a desegregated school and a mob threatening to kill her. It was almost like a religious conversion. I had never been particularly political, but I began to ask myself, 'Why do people want to do this to other human beings?' I decided to try to find out what was happening to children going through such horrible stress."

What he had first thought of as "a few months of observation" turned out to be his life's work. After leaving the Air Force, he spent six years in the South, getting involved in the civil rights movement and talking to Ruby and others like her with help from Jane, whom he had married in 1960. "At first the children were frightened to death of us—they'd never had white people in their homes before," he says. "But I began to throw away my questions. I threw away my necktie. I began to sit on the floor." Eventually he talked to white children as well, though many whites were not pleased by his presence. "My life was threatened many times," Coles says. Still, he stayed, and his acclaimed Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear was published in 1967. Coles's career was on its way.

In the years that followed, he and Jane, funded by grants, studied thousands of children, first at home ("I've worked in every single state," Coles says) and then abroad. Bobby and Danny, both now in medical school, helped out, as did Michael, now a premed at Harvard. "A reviewer once referred to us as a cottage industry, and I think that's about right," Coles says.

The family has lived in a comfortable farmhouse in Concord, traveling in the spring and summer, since 1974, when Coles began teaching literature at Harvard. His undergraduate course the Literature of Social Reflection was the university's most popular offering last year, despite its ominous nickname: Guilt 105. The premise of the course, Coles says, "is that we should look inward and think about the meaning of our life and its purposes, lest we do it in 20 or 30 years and it's too late." Jay Woodruff, a former student and current teaching assistant for Coles, says, "The phrase that becomes a chorus in his lectures is, 'How does one live a life?' He's effective because students see him engaging in self-scrutiny and self-criticism, which is such a contrast from the smugness most professors affect."

When he isn't teaching or traveling. Coles is often writing. He has 50 books to his credit, among them biographies, essays and poetry. Next month, the attention-shy psychiatrist will embark on his first reading tour. His old friend Walker Percy, who died earlier this year, persuaded him to give it a try. "It was a sort of promise between friends," Coles says. "And I figure it will teach me new things about this country."

When he comes home, he will turn his professional attention away from children and toward people at the other end of the age spectrum. "I've started talking to elderly people who are on their own, no matter how old or how ill or how troubled," he says. "I want to see how they keep going. I want to learn their secrets."

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