Coles is very much a contextualist in his perspective, as the stories he chooses to share make clear that the multiple life contexts and historical time in which a child lives all have an impact on the moral and religious sensitivity and understanding of that child.
As such, young children tend to develop their "moral compass" based on the different behaviors and reasoning of other children (i.e., peers), parents, religious leaders, and teachers that they meet throughout their young lives. Although preferring to distance himself from stage theory, Coles does recognize that as children age and become more abstract in their reasoning and more internalized in cultural practices, their cultural literacy elevates and their moral literacy declines.
In The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles shares results of his interviews, held over months and years, with children of different religious and spiritual traditions, including Hopi children in the Southwestern United States; Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish children in the Boston area of the United States; Christian children in Tennessee in the United States; and Pakistani children in London. Coles asks them simple questions, such as what God means to them. Coles hopes that the answers that the children respond with will provide the reader insight into the religiosity of children. The meaning behind the stories, without any analysis or judgment from Coles himself, is, again, left to the reader to consider. It is clear, however, that in the stories he chooses to share and the questions he asks in the interviews that Coles hopes to educate his readers and the broader adult society about the wisdom of young people and their understanding of and relationship with that which they consider to be divine. To assume young children cannot be religious or spiritual because they are too young, and therefore not within the appropriate cognitive or emotional stage, is to fail to listen to the stories children tell.
Coles's work with children and interest in their moral and spiritual lives can also be found in other works, such as the narratives he shares in The Political Lives of Children. He believes that children learn about politics much in the same way that they learn about morality-from their parents, friends, and teachers-and that the political lives of children merge with their moral lives. The stories shared in The Political Life of Children repeatedly display the dynamic between the moral and political consciousness of children, as children share their views on the relationship between issues related to freedom and those related to constraint.
In A Call to Service, Coles equates voluntary community service to a natural moral impulse that is part instinct and part the influence of religious tradition. As with moral literacy, Coles finds that one's natural instinct to give to others is increasingly silenced as the child becomes more highly immersed in a culture through education and peer influence.
Robert Coles inspires his readers to pay attention to the voices of children and to what they have to say about religion, spirituality, and moral issues. He asks his readers to listen to children, for within their stories lie their understandings of and relationships with that which they consider to be divine, transcendent, and right or wrong. While Coles defers from providing his own theory of spiritual/religious or moral development, his perspective can be found when his books and stories shared are read with care. Coles challenges his readers to identify within each story told by a child the particular contexts-both individual and contextual-that influenced the child's religious, spiritual, and/or moral development. By attending to the impact of the historical time on the child's development, Coles also brings attention to the role of time, in interaction with contextual influences, on a child's religious and spiritual development.