Richard Weissbourd on Adult and Adolescent Moral Development

Richard Weissbourd discusses the moral development of both adults and adolescents and they ways in which they are connected.

Transcript (Text)

A lot of my work is on adult development and how adult development's related to kids' moral development. Adult moral development is related to kids' moral development. And that we have this idea out there that we can just sort of deposit our values in our kids, and that as adults we're sort of fully morally formed, when in fact as adults, we're always in the process of moral growth. And that our capacity to morally grow or not morally regress is very important to kids' capacity to morally grow or not morally regress.

And you know, so in a story like this, you know, it's, again, it's not clear exactly what the different responses were of teachers or parents or whatever, but there's a tendency of some adults to become very self-righteous in cases like this. You know, that they just get angry at the perpetrators, or they just get angry at the kid who wouldn't snitch as if they're not vulnerable to dishonesty sometimes, as if they don't shade the truth sometimes, as if they're not capable at times of being cruel to other people, even if it's in much more subtle ways.

And you know, I think a lot of this can be mitigated if adults, in fact, are able to have very honest and authentic conversations with kids about things like, when do you tell the truth and when do you not tell the truth? What are the challenges to telling the truth or to snitching? And how do you manage those challenges in various circumstances? Why do we sometimes feel the impulse to be cruel, or how can that make us feel powerful?

And you know, not just as a kid issue. As an adult issue, too. And just very authentic conversations about those things. And it wasn't clear to me that that was happening in this case. It may have been, but from the case study it wasn't clear it was happening.

And just one other thing. And I think that there is also an issue here of adult conceptions of adolescence. And that sometimes adults get angry at kids because they expect kids to act like mini adults. And in fact, you know, kids are not adults. And adolescence is a particular developmental stage where kids are very interpersonal and very affected by their peer relations. And it's very important to understand that and to have some identification and be able to take a perspective of adolescence.

But I think there's another myth about adolescence, and that's that adolescents are like this separate species and they've spun out of our orbit, they're alien creatures, their brains are wired differently. And if you believe that, then you have a very hands-off attitude about adolescence. And I think the irony of adolescence is that both things are true. You know, they're both developing a conscience and very adult in some ways, and very interpersonal and very regressed in some ways because they're interpersonal.

And if adults can hold in their heads that irony or that essential contradiction and dynamic, and both empathize with the degree to which adolescents are dependent on peer approval and interpersonal and developing a conscience, and appeal to that higher conscience, they're going to get a lot farther. And my sense is that adults fall into one of the two camps rather than really holding on to the contradiction.

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