Privileged Ones is the fifth and last of Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis series. In four earlier volumes Dr. Coles interviewed a wide range of American children—Eskimos, Appalachians, migrant workers. Now he deals with the children of what he calls “The Well-Off and the Rich in America.”

Dr. Coles is a professional child psychiatrist (“There are, after all, only a few hundred such men and women in the country”); he is currently at Harvard. According to the publisher, he has written twenty-four books. Except for Children of Crisis, I cannot say that I really know his work. From time to time I see articles by him; whenever I do, I feel a warm glow. I like thee, Dr. Coles, I know not why. Perhaps it is because I am interested in many of his large subjects (economic injustice, children, Middle America). Certainly, I admire his uninhibited liberalism; his obvious compassion for those he deals with. The fact that I seldom actually finish reading anything that he writes probably has to do with my own perhaps irrational conviction that Dr. Coles’s heart is so entirely in all the right places (mouth, boots, upon the sleeve) that nothing he has to say will ever surprise me despite the fact that he has traveled far and reasonably wide because “One hopes; one hopes against hope that somehow it will make a little difference; only a little, but still some, if people mostly unknown to almost all of us get better known to more of us.” This generous sentiment is from the preface to the penultimate volume Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians.* Yet no matter how far afield Dr. Coles goes, he is seldom able to tell us anything that we did not already know.

I suspect that this gift for inducing déjà vu may very well be the most subtle form of teaching. Where Plato makes us think by asking questions, Dr. Coles makes us feel by giving answers—in the form of monologues attributed to various children, an enjoyable if somewhat questionable technique (even Dr. Coles is disturbed by a form of “narrative that excludes myself as much as possible, and brings [the reader] directly to the children…. I may well have made a mistake, given the limitations of words, not to mention my own shortcomings”).

Children of Crisis is a work of high seriousness, and a great deal of labor (if not work) has gone into the compilation of so many interviews with so many children over so many years. The persona of Dr. Coles is truly attractive… and it is the persona that one is most conscious of while reading him. Thanks no doubt to “the limitations of words” he is present, like God, in every aspect of his creation and, unlike God, he must be a most agreeable companion for a child, causing a minimum of that sort of dislocation Lévi-Strauss notes in Tristes tropiques: the moment that the anthropologist appears on the scene a pristine culture ceases, by definition, to be what it was and becomes something else again in order to accommodate the researcher-invader and his preconceptions.

Dr. Coles is attractively modest; he does not claim to know all the questions—as opposed to answers. In a sense, Children of Crisis could be called The Education of Robert Coles. Although he has a strong if oddly undefined sense of the way the world ought to be, he knows perfectly well that he is apt to impose his own world view on the children he talks to. In fact, the most beguiling aspect of his work is the pains that he takes not to do what, of course, he cannot help doing: expressing through the children his outrage at a monstrously unjust society. As a result, we get to know a lot about the mind (or feelings) of Dr. Coles. This is no bad thing. On the other hand, the children he interviewed during the last twenty years are somewhat shadowy.

In Privileged Ones Dr. Coles talks to the children of the rich. As he describes his method of work, he worries whether or not the phrase “children of crisis” really applies to them. The original “crisis” of the earlier studies was the integration of America’s public schools and its effect on not-rich children. In theory, the rich don’t have to worry about integrated public schools if they don’t want to; their children can always go elsewhere. Finally (and rightly, I think), Dr. Coles thinks that the “crisis” does include the squire’s children (Dr. Coles’s approach is not unlike Horatio Alger’s, whose cast of characters always included a “purseproud” squire’s son who treats badly poor pluck-and-luck Luke, who eventually works hard and makes money and has the satisfaction of one day condescending to his old enemy who has lost all his money). It was a black parent who told Dr. Coles that the rich are the people he should be talking to because “they own us” (this was in New Orleans). A sensible observation; and suggestion.


Dr. Coles set about the work at hand in his usual way. “I do not interview children with tests, tape-recorders, questions. I call upon them as a visitor and eventually, one hopes, a friend.” How he comes to meet them is somewhat mysterious. He tells us, “In 1960 I started visiting regularly five quite well-to-do New Orleans families…. These were not the ‘first’ families of New Orleans, but they were far from the last in rank.” He tells us that he had been so much with the victims of our economic system that he felt “ill at ease” with the New Orleans bourgeoisie, although they were “my own kind.” So St. Francis must have felt whenever he stopped off in Assisi to visit the folks, only to find them still busy netting and eating those very same little birds he liked to chat with. Yet Dr. Coles is able to give the rich almost the same compassionate attention that he gave the less “advantaged” (his verb) families.

I never came to their parents as a stranger, suddenly at the door with a brazenly insistent set of inquiries. I met these upper-income families as an outgrowth of work that often they had good reason to know about: as growers and plantation owners; as important citizens.

This does not explain very much. For instance, was Dr. Coles ever called in professionally? Several of the children he talked to had already had dealings with that somber eminence known as “the school psychologist.” Were they difficult children? And did the parents turn to Dr. Coles? If so, did they know what he was doing?

The most extraordinary omission in this work is the parents. Although we hear a good deal about them at second-hand through the children, Dr. Coles seldom records his own impression of the parents. As a result, his Privileged Ones often sound like voices in one of Beckett’s enervating plays—literally unrelated to any recognizable world. He does warn us that his method requires, “at times, not only changes of name and place of residence, but the substantial alteration of other significant information. The point has been to struggle for representative accounts. I have not hesitated, at times, to condense remarks drastically or to draw upon the experiences of several children in the interest of a composite picture.” I am afraid that the result not only makes the children sound all alike (Dr. Coles has no ear for the way people speak) but since we are given so little precise data about any of the families, there is a flat sameness of tone as well as of subject. Dr. Coles’s education (like that of Henry Adams) starts with certain things already absolutely known and contrary data is either excluded or made to fit certain preconceptions.

What are Dr. Coles’s absolutes? At the start, he makes clear “my political sympathies, my social and economic views…. I worked for years in the South with SNCC and CORE, the civil rights movement.” He reminds us that the first volume of the series was the result of the crisis brought on by the integration of Mississippi schools and that the second volume dealt with the perpetual crisis (exploitation) of migrant workers: “I dedicated a book I wrote on Erik H. Erikson’s psychoanalytic work to Cesar Chavez.” Also, “I have written an assortment of muckraking articles in connection with the social, racial, and economic problems of the South,” etc. Finally, “My heroes—of this century, at least—are James Agee and George Orwell, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos, William Carlos Williams, and Dorothy Day—none of them great admirers of this nation’s upper-income, propertied families.”

Although I have not read every work by the writers named, I have read something of each and I think that one can safely say that Bernanos never had a word to say about America’s propertied families. Flannery O’Connor was interested not in class but in grace. Walker Percy is a Southern aristocrat who has not shown, to date, any leveling social tendencies. No doubt Orwell deplored our “well-off and rich families” as he did their British equivalents, but he did not write about them. Neither Simone Weil nor William Carlos Williams, MD, seems quite relevant. Dorothy Day obviously contributed to Dr. Coles’s education as did, I fear, James Agee, whose early ersatz-Biblical style has not had a good influence on Dr. Coles’s over-fluent prose. Like so many good-hearted, sort-headed admirers of the Saint James (Agee) version of poverty in America, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Dr. Coles is enthralled by the windy, woolly style of the saint, unaware that the only numinous presence in that book is Walker Evans, whose austere photographs are so at odds with Agee’s tumescent (the pornographers have stolen “turgid”; we’ll never get it back) text.


In any case, somehow or other, Dr. Coles got to talk to a number of nicely “advantaged” children in, variously, Alaska, New Mexico, New Orleans, a San Antonio barrio, an Atlanta black ghetto, “north of Boston,” “west of Boston,” and “well north of Boston” (the last three phrases reverberate for the Massachusetts-bred author in much the same way that Combray and Balbec did for Proust). The geographic range is wide, and interesting. Once Dr. Coles got to know the children (aged, roughly, six to eleven or twelve at first encounter), he would encourage them to draw pictures for him. The pictures are included in the book and I am sure that they reveal a good deal about the artists.

Since Dr. Coles gives the impression of being a thoroughly nice man, the children were probably as candid as he thinks they were. Rather sweetly, he admits that he liked them even though, with his credentials (Cesar Chavez, Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy), he feared that he might be put off by their advantaged-ness. I am sure that they liked him, too. But then it is not possible to dislike an author who dedicates a book: “To America’s children, rich and well-off as well as poor, in the hope that some day, one day soon, all boys and girls everywhere in the world will have a decent chance to survive, grow, and affirm themselves as human beings.” Plainly, Bishop Coles will not rest easy as long as a single child on this earth is obliged to negate himself as a vegetable or mineral.

The American vice is explanation. This is because there is so little conversation (known as “meaningful dialogue” to the explainers) in the greatest country in the history of the greatest world in the Milky Way. Dr. Coles is a born explainer and prone to loose rhetoric; given his “credentials,” this is as it should be. But it is somewhat disturbing to find that most of the children are also great explainers. Admittedly, Dr. Coles is homogenizing their characters and prose in the interests of “representativeness” and “compositiveness”; as a result, not only do they sound like him, they also come through as a batch of born-explainers, faithfully reflecting the explanatory style of parents, teachers, television commercials.

But despite the grimly didactic tendencies of our future rulers, the kids themselves are often interesting; particularly when Dr. Coles gets down to what Mrs. Wharton used to call “the all-important data.” In an excellent early chapter called “Comfortable, Comfortable Places,” Dr. Coles gives us a sharp look at the way the rich live nowadays. He describes the air-conditioned ranch houses in the Southwest, the Georgian and Colonial manors west and north and well north of Boston, the Gothic mansions in New Orleans’s Garden District. He has a gift for the expensive detail. He notes the almost universal desire of the rich to live in the country (hangover from the days of the British Ascendancy?). They acquire ranches, farms, estates; go richly native. Pools, tennis courts, stables are taken for granted. For many parents a life “without golf…would be unbearable, even hard to imagine.” Although Dr. Coles describes the obsession that the rich have with sports, he does not analyze the significance of the games that they play, and oblige their children to play. He seems to think that sports are indulged in either for the sake of health or to show off wealth (the private golf course, the ski run).

In the case of the new rich (his usual subject), expensive sports may indeed be a sign of status. But for the old rich games are a throwback to a warrior heritage, real or imagined. A competence with weapons and horses was a necessity for the noble. Later, when such things were of no use to desk-bound magnates, horses, weapons, games continued to exert an atavistic appeal. Also, as late as my own youth, it was taken for granted that since making a living was not going to be much of a problem or even (in some cases) a necessity, the usual hard round of money-making with all its excitements and insecurities was not to be one’s lot. Therefore, time must be filled—hence, games. Certainly physical activity is better than drinking, gambling, lechery… the traditional hazards of great families, not to mention fortunes.

As a child, at each birthday or Christmas, I came to dread the inevitable tennis racquet, Winchester rifle, skis: these objects were presented to me in much the same way that the pampered dog in the television commercial is tempted with every sort of distasteful dog food until, finally, he goes up the wall when given The Right Brand. In my case, The Right Brand proved to be books…not proper sustenance for the growing boy of forty years ago; or even today, if Dr. Coles’s findings are correct. I don’t believe a single child that he talked to mentions a book to him (did he mention any books to them?). But television is noted. And sports. And school. And parents. And servants. Servants!

Dr. Coles notes that in the South the servants (a.k.a. help) are black; in the North they are sometimes black, but more usually (in the houses of the true nobles) white. Dr. Coles records what the children have to say about servants. But he does not probe very deeply. He does not seem to understand to what extent, pre-puberty, “privileged children” are brought up not by parents but by servants. Governesses, nannies, made-moiselles are still very much a part of the scene even in the age of the babysitter, and they can be more important to the child than his parents. Although Dr. Coles records a good deal of what the children have to say about the people who work in the house or around the place, he is not (except in one case) sensitive to the deep and complex relationships that exist between, say, nurse and child. But then Dr. Coles is after different game: the attitude of the rich child toward economic inferiors.

Dr. Coles is good at showing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which class lines are drawn by parents and toed by children. One must never be rude or unkind to those less fortunate. Above all, one must never embarrass (recurring word) the lower orders by asking them to dinner or by going to visit their house (or “home,” as Dr. Coles would say—a word not used by the nobles). Incidentally, all schoolteachers and most doctors are counted as plebes. This news will come as a particular jolt to our medicos, who are not only well-to-do but when espied on a dim day on a green fairway might pass for upper class.

The last time that I saw W.H. Auden, he announced, apropos nothing at all, “I am upper middle class. My father was a doctor. In England that is upper middle class.” Like the Baron de Charlus enumerating his titles for the benefit of Madame Verdurin, Auden discoursed for ten minutes on the social importance of his family. As an old corsair in the class wars, I waited for him to pause; then raised the Jolly Roger. I told him that in my youth we were tended by Washington’s “leading society physician” (the Homeric epithet always put before his name in the city’s social columns). He would come to our house in not-so-nearby Virginia. Dressed in morning coat and striped trousers, he would dispense aspirin (and morphine to the family junkie); then, if the company at table was not too grand, he would be invited for lunch. Auden received this bit of cutlass-work with the bland announcement, “I am upper middle class.” And repeated himself, word for word.

Dr. Coles notes a significant difference between rich and poor children. The poor tend to live in a long unchanging present while the rich have a future to look forward to. For the rich there is always “next year” when they will go to Switzerland to ski or to the West Indies to scuba-dive. Early on, rich children are trained to think of themselves as having a certain “entitlement” (Dr. Coles’s rather good synonym for “privilege”—from the Latin for “private law”) to a way of life that despite numerous perils and often onerous obligations is bound to be satisfactory and worthwhile. Unlike the present-trapped poor, each child of privilege is acutely conscious of his own specialness. Dr. Coles defines this self-consciousness most elegantly: “With none of the…children I have worked with” (well, disregard those two inelegant “withs”) “have I heard such a continuous and strong emphasis put on the ‘self.’ In fact, other children rarely if ever think about themselves in the way children of well-to-do and rich parents do—with insistence, regularity, and, not least, out of a learned sense of obligation. These privileged ones are children who live in homes with many mirrors. They have mirrors in their rooms, large mirrors in adjoining bathrooms….” Mirrored Ones or Reflected Ones might have been an even better title than Privileged Ones. At his best, Dr. Coles is himself something of a mirror, with fun-house tendencies.

Certain themes emerge from these monologues. The collapse of the financial order in the early Thirties made a lasting impression on the parents of these children. The Depression convinced them of the essential fragility of what is now known as the consumer society. Menaced, on the one hand, by labor unions and, on the other, by the federal government, even the richest American family feels insecure. It is fascinating that this unease…no, paranoia (somehow or other they will ruin us) still persists after so many years of prosperity (for the rich). But then the privileged had a number of frights in the Thirties. One of my first memories was the march on Washington of war veterans in 1932. Demanding bonuses for having served in the First War, they were nicknamed Boners. I thought them Halloween skeletons. Then I saw them at the Capitol. They looked like comic-strip hobos. But there was nothing comic about the rocks that they heaved at my grandfather’s car. In due course, General MacArthur and his corps of photographers sent the Boners home; nevertheless, we knew that one day they would come back and kill us all. Like Cavafy’s urbanites, we waited with a certain excitement for the barbarians to return and sack the city.

Dr. Coles’s children also fear the Boners. Only now they are called communists or liberals, blacks or Chicanos; and the federal government is in league with them. Worse, the Boners are no longer encamped outside the city; they have occupied the city. All streets are dangerous now. Apartment houses are fortresses; and even the suburbs and exurbs are endangered by “them,” and (recurrent theme) there is nowhere to go. Although some of Dr. Coles’s children talk of France and England as relative paradises (curious, the fascination with Europe), most are fatalistic. As an Alaskan girl puts it, “I hear Daddy tell Mom that he feels like taking all his money out of the bank and getting a compass and spinning it, and wherever it ends up pointing to, we would go there. But if it pointed straight north, we couldn’t go live near the North Pole.” Meanwhile the son of a Boston banker reports that, “It’s hard to trust the help these days.” He worries about the house being robbed: “Someone tips off the crooks.” As for Boston, his mother “doesn’t like to walk even a block in the city when it gets dark….”

Dr. Coles’s principal interest is how the rich regard the poor. This is a good subject. But one wishes that he was a bit less direct and on target in his approach. After all, there are a lot of ways to come at the subject. For instance, many of the children are pubescent or even adolescent; yet sex is hardly mentioned. Now the question of sexual role is every bit as political, in the true sense, as conditioned attitudes toward money, class, and race. Dr. Coles nowhere deals with the idea of the family (“fealty” to which is so excitedly sworn by certain childless low-brow moralists). For instance, what do the young girls he talked to think of motherhood? Most of the girl children (genus privileged) that I know are adamant about not having children. They believe that the planet is overcrowded, that resources are limited, that the environment is endangered. Their vehemence is often startling—if, perhaps, short-lived. Dr. Coles notes none of this. But then his “crisis” was racial integration.

Except for one anecdote about a New Orleans girl who liked to contemplate a nearby cemetery, wondering “who ‘those people’ were,” death is hardly present in these tales. Although Dr. Coles handles with delicacy the New Orleans girl’s “morbidity,” he seems not to have been interested in what the other children had to say on a subject of enormous concern to children. The moment that a child comprehends not only the absoluteness but the inevitability of his own death, he is obliged, for better or worse, to come to terms with how best to live in the world. For a rich child to whom all things seem possible, the knowledge of death often brings on a vastation not unlike the one that helped to propel to enlightenment the uniquely over-advantaged Prince Siddhartha.

But if death is absent in Dr. Coles’s testaments, God is all over the place. Since Dr. Coles has so generalized the families that he writes about, it is hard to tell just what their actual beliefs are. I would guess that none is Jewish or Roman Catholic. I would assume that the Southern or Southwestern families are Protestant with fundamentalist tendencies of the twice-born variety. West, north, and well north of Boston, the rich tend to belong to the highly refined Episcopal Church where talk of God is considered bad taste. Yet I was startled by how many of Dr. Coles’s families say grace before meals; go to church; refer to God. I never heard grace said at table in any house that I visited as a child. Yet God and religion mean so much to so many of Dr. Coles’s families that I can’t help thinking he himself is enthralled by that tripartite deity whose sense of fun has made sublunary life so strenuous and odd.

In describing a disaster dream, “My father asked God to spare us,” says a girl with a pair of alcoholic parents. A New Mexico boy wonders if Indians “pray to the same God his parents ask him to beseech before going to sleep. His parents are Presbyterians, attend church with their children every Sunday, and encourage in them prayer at the table and upon retiring.” The son of a black entrepreneur notes his father’s appeals to God to forgive him if he has wronged anyone in the course of making money. A Southern girl notes that “Christ didn’t want people to look down on the poor….” The good poor, that is. One child is critical of his father’s treatment of migrant labor; he is regarded with some unease by his family as “a believing Christian.” I suspect that Dr. Coles may himself be a believing Christian (like Bernanos, O’Connor, Weil, et al.). If he is, it is possible that he has exaggerated the importance of religion in the lives of the families that he deals with. But I propose this only tentatively. After all, a recent poll assured us that one-third of the American population (mostly unrich) claims to be twice-born.

According to Dr. Coles’s research, the children of the rich (poor, too, but in a different way) pass through an altruistic phase at about the age of ten or eleven. They become aware not only of injustice but of hypocrisy. They question seriously the ancient parental injunction: do as I say, not as I do. Thanks to television (an unexpected agent of revolution), a white child can watch a black child being menaced by a mob (thus compassion begins), while television serials like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” can have a positively subversive effect. After all, to rob the rich in order to give to the poor is not entirely unlike what he has been taught in Sunday School. Eventually, there is a showdown between parent and child. “Robin Hood” is replaced by “Gilligan’s Island” and all’s right with the world—for the time being, anyway. Predictably, parents get a good deal of help from schoolteachers who also have a stake in maintaining things as they are. Dr. Coles’s children are uncommonly shrewd when it comes to analyzing their teachers. They know that the teachers are terrified of saying anything that might distress the parents. The children also know when a teacher does get out of line, there is hell to pay: the subject of one of Dr. Coles’s best tales.

The stories that comprise Privileged Ones seem to me to belong more to moral literature than to science (I assume that psychology still pretends to be a science). Dr. Coles has used conversations with actual children in order to write a series of short stories. Since the author is the least disinterested of men, these stories are essentially polemical and so, to my mind, entirely honorable if not exactly “scientific.” Dr. Coles’s mind tends to the political and the moral rather than to the abstract and the empirical. He believes that the economic system by which this country maintains its celebrated standard of living (for a few) is eminently unfair. Millions of men, women, and children are financially exploited in order to support one percent of the population in opulence and the rest in sufficient discomfort to keep them working at jobs that they dislike in order to buy things that they do not need in order to create jobs to make money to be able to buy, etc. This is not a just society. It may not last much longer. But for the present, the children of the rich are as carefully conditioned to the world as it is as are those of the poor.

In story after story, Dr. Coles shows a child at the moment he becomes aware of the problems of those who work his father’s mine, or harvest his father’s crops. Then he is enlightened. He is told that the world is a cruel place where big fish eat little fish and Daddy is a big fish. Family and teachers unite; convince the child that there is not much he can do now—or, perhaps, ever. The world is as it is. Perhaps, later, something might be done. Just wait. Meanwhile…. But the waiting is not long. Metamorphosis is at hand. Parents and teachers know that the principal agent of social conformity is puberty. As Old Faithful DNA triggers, on schedule, certain hormones, the bright outward-looking compassionate ten-year-old becomes like everyone else. Or sixteen equals cynicism equals a car.

From the cradle, our economic rulers-to-be are imbued with a strong sense of what they are entitled to, which is, technically speaking, 25 percent of the wealth of the United States. To make sure that they will be able to hold on to this entitlement, most of the boys and one of the girls want to be—what else?—lawyers. Dr. Coles keens: “it is unfair that a few be so very privileged and that the overwhelming majority be either hard-pressed or barely able to make do.” He also worries that his own social-meliorizing views might have colored these stories because “one has to distinguish between social criticism and psychological observation.” I can’t think why. At least not in the case of Robert Coles. Whatever pretensions he may have as a scientific observer, he is essentially a moralist and, in these interesting stories, he has shown how the ruling class of an unjust society perpetuates itself through the indoctrination of its young.

Unfortunately, Dr. Coles does nothing much with his material. He is hortatory; good-hearted; vague. Were he less timid, he might have proposed a kind of socialism as partial solution to the “crisis.” But like those collusive schoolteachers he writes about (and resembles), he keeps within the familiar framework of a political system which is itself not only in crisis but the crisis. Although Dr. Coles’s notes on contemporary children are in themselves of no particular urgency, they might one day serve as useful appendices to some yet to be written synthesizing work in which our peculiar society is looked at plain from an economic or political or (why not?) religious point of view.

This Issue

February 9, 1978