Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, a professor of psychiatry, and the Agee Professor of Social Ethics at the Graduate School of Education at Duke University. He has been a visiting professor in the History Department at Duke University, is a founding member of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and is a coeditor of Double Take Magazine, published at the Center. He was also an advisor to President John F. Kennedy. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Coles has written sixty books and well over a thousand articles, reviews, and essays. He received the Medal of Freedom from President William Clinton, the highest honor awarded to a civilian in the United States, as well as being recognized as one of the nation's top creative geniuses by the MacArthur Foundation. With his most recent book, A Call to Service, Coles makes a case and an indirect plea for heightened levels of voluntary and community service. His work serves to educate its readers about child and adolescent spiritual and religious development and, as well, by calling for service to others, promotes heightened levels of spiritual and religious development in the lives of his readers.
Coles is recognized and applauded for his work with underprivileged children around the world and his insights into the way children develop, what children need to live happy and healthy lives, and how children understand the world around them. The spiritual and moral lives of children have been his primary interests. Those interested in studying and better understanding the moral and spiritual lives of children often start with readings by Coles, most notably The Moral Life of Children, The Moral Intelligence of Children, and The Spiritual Lives of Children. The stories he tells of young children and their experiences with the divine and that which they consider to be transcendent, as well as the stories of character development and moral questioning, offer the reader and student a comprehensive view of the varieties of moral, religious, and spiritual experiences in childhood. As a result of long-term observations of children, Coles offers stories of children's lives-as told by the children. He makes very little commentary or analysis of the stories told. He assumes the stories and the voices of children speak for themselves for the reader to decipher and enter into.
Coles offers in his books narrative dialogues shared between him and the children he interviews. The stories are intended to offer his readers a glimpse into the sensitivity that he finds in the lives of even very young children to moral issues, issues of character, and religious understanding. The story of Ruby Bridges, one of Coles's most well-known subjects, is a worthy example. Coles tells her story-the story of a 6-yearold African-American girl who was involved in the school desegregation movement in the Southern United States and who, despite facing abuse, hatred, and violence, found herself praying for the very mob of hateful adults and children who threatened her. In sharing this story, Coles not only educates the reader to the experiences of moral behavior, moral intelligence, and religiosity of young children, but challenges the reader to question the contexts that allowed/supported Ruby to be able to take the stance she did with such moral integrity and assurance.
Coles has been known to challenge the field of psychoanalysis and the theories of development that describe development as occurring in ages and stages. The stories that he provides, such as the story of Ruby Bridges, make clear that young children can pose questions about moral and religious significance that, while based in a different "moral notice" than that of adults, signify an awareness and understanding of issues of right and wrong and moral ideals that do not always fit into neat expectations of ages and stages.