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38 MARCH 2002
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teachers and students

Why moral reasoning theory is helpful in Child and Youth Care work

Jack Phelan

I worked in a group home for teen age boys in New York City some years ago and I often worried about the places, people and things available to them outside the purview of our program that were a daily temptation for these often impulsive and “living in the moment" youth. It was clear to me that some of the messages in my own head about good and bad choices were not available to most of these youth and they were prone to make decisions and choices that got them into difficulty.

Fortunately, I quickly gave up the notion that if I just shared my picture of the world with them, occasionally by yelling and lecturing, then they would somehow “get it". However, I still couldn’t find a useful way to unravel the poor logic used by many of the youth as they decided how to act in situations. I knew that they weren’t being foolish in their own frame of reference, even though it looked that way to me.

At the time I wasn’t aware of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning, but I can see in retrospect that I was struggling with moral reasoning issues in my group home.

Most of the youth were living in the moment, with little worry about longer term consequences of their choices. This is quite normal for teens, yet there weren’t the usual guilty feelings or regret/apology response when things went badly. I thought about some of the messages given to young children about how mom has eyes in the back of her head and will catch you if you are misbehaving which seemed appropriate for pre-schoolers and decided to try a variation of this on a few of the youth who I judged to be most lacking in value judgements about their behavior. I listened carefully to these youth’s descriptions about good/bad behavior and began to realize that for them good behavior is anything that you don’t get caught or punished for and bad behavior is anything that gets you into trouble because you got caught.

My strategy for supporting them to make useful choices in the moment was to convince them that I would either know or find out what they did (therefore they would be regularly caught).

This was not a strategy that I would use for youth that were more able to make choices based on more elaborate rationales, but only a hopefully temporary measure to assist some youth to move out of a very primitive logic about good/bad.

Some of the things I did include observing these youth in the neighborhood without them noticing me and casually mentioning something about what they were doing later on. When they would ask me how I knew that, I would say that I was aware of most of what they do during the day. I would notice one of these youth talking secretively across the room to another and comment “I heard that", which would create anxiety about what I knew. I walked by a card game one day as a youth was shuffling the cards and stopped and asked him to shuffle them again. I stated that there were only 51 cards in the deck. When I was challenged to explain, I feigned surprise that all of them couldn’t hear and count each card as it hit the table. When they counted the cards to prove me wrong, there were only 51 in the deck. This actually wasn’t unusual, since most of our decks were missing a card or two, but everyone, especially the youth whom I wanted to influence, were quite impressed.

We eventually had several interesting conversations about situations where one or another of them had resisted temptation or decided to come clean because I was going to find out anyway.

Basically I was meeting these youth at the moral reasoning stage which they were functioning in, and supporting them by being a reason to think twice before doing or not doing something. My goal was to help them to begin to reason at higher stages as the value of making good choices started to be logical to them.

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