Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of

Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Monday, May 31, 2010

"I am proud of you!"

There is certainly a lot of staff drama in my school right now. End of school year student chaos aside, there have been an unusually high number of teachers being "surplused" whose positions will no longer be available at the school next year. There have also been a handful of teachers asked by the principal to step down from their leadership positions.

Sure, this can be an unfortunate reality for ANY school district under extreme budget cuts and crises, but the unprofessional and abrupt way our principal has handled these changes has been far from professional or ideal. Communication from top to bottom has consistently been an area of concern in our building, and everything has now come to a head. My co-teacher, who has been in the building for over 18 years, agrees that this is the lowest staff morale she has ever seen at our school.

So what, you may ask, can us teachers do about this dire situation to improve school culture and climate for everyone? Luckily, we have a very strong teachers' union behind us and a building representative who works tirelessly for our staff's happiness, fairness, and well-being. Late this week, she called a meeting with our union representative and staff. The result? A well-attended, very informative, productive, and eye-opening meeting that informed us of our rights and duties in working to improve the leadership and communication in our school. Essentially, she invited us all to send her anonymous comments, concerns, and examples of poor leadership, communication, decision-making, and judgment on the part of the administration. If she gets enough comments vocalized, she can proceed with a vote of "no confidence" from the staff to send to the higher ups.

As of late, the comments sent to her have only mounted, and I know for a fact that the ball is rolling for something to be done about the lack of clear and effective administrative leadership in our building. I am not normally one to use a single person as a scapegoat, but in this case, it is necessary and well-deserved, unfortunately.

Following that meeting, one of my colleagues came into my room and said, "I am proud of you for speaking up!"

"Thanks," I said, "I guess I am finally learning how to grow a spine here."

Boy, does it feel GOOD to learn how to be assertive and confident when it matters most in one's school building .... fingers crossed that it helps make a difference!!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Creating a Generation of Helpless Enabled Children

As educators, we always want the best for our students and to see students work hard to achieve lifelong success and personal growth. Parents, of course, want the same thing. Unfortunately, many of them today believe the best way to raise their children is by treating them as equals and "friends" who call the shots and make their own decisions. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get along with one's children all the same, it is certainly not realistic, especially as a child enters the turbulent, unpredictable, and often stressful stage of adolescence.

My students' parents run the gamut from not being involved or home at all to being a complete helicopter hovering over every detail of their lives. Another recent trend in parenting I have witnessed is a distinct group of enablers who give their children everything, only want to keep the peace and get along, and refuse to be the strict disciplinarians and disseminators of tough love all teenagers need. The result? Entitled, spoiled, and ungrateful young adolescents who think the world should be handed to them on a silver platter and do not understand the true value of good, honest hard work. These children do not receive the kind of tough love and firm limits at home they so desperately crave. Consequently, they come to school expecting everything to be easy and assuming their teachers will be "easy" on them too.

I certainly do not mean to berate today's parents, especially because I am not yet a parent myself. Nonetheless, teaching over 120 students per day for the past several years has allowed me a unique perspective into our new generation of students as people, learners, and consumers. Anyone who has studied adolescent development knows about the rollercoaster of emotions, decisions, peer pressures, and outside media and societal influences today's teens wrestle with. It is not an easy time to grow up, and I have great empathy toward today's adolescents.

Still, the value of hard work, honest struggle, and consistent consequences is truly invaluable to our next generation. I work every day to be in collaboration with parents to work towards the best for my students. I only want the best for them and the opportunity for them to experience success, failure, hardship, and consequences for their mistakes. How else will they grow or learn from past decisions?

Perhaps this mindset is what made the following chain of emails difficult to read this evening. The exchange is between my colleague and a student's parent, someone whom we have continually struggled with as an enabler. It is impossible to change her outlook, but we certainly can do all we can to work with her son and not give up on him. This excerpt should be read from bottom to top:

My colleague:

Clearly it is my fault....
Is it me or is she making excuses....I can't teach him individually and I try to give him attention, but he is just so difficult especially because he is never on time, there, or not feeling well.  Should I respond or let it go... I guess I should treat him as though he is in Kindergarten.  Apparently, helping him after he was sick and taking my time off to help him catch up during finals and during bobcat was not enough... I even helped him my only block off during semester one finals to help him.  Clearly it is me.

Please advise...any suggestions on how I should proceed?


Stress interferes with his ability to concentrate.  Try positive feedback,
kind and motivational words.  Let him know that you believe in him and that
you understand he is overwhelmed and you are there to help.  Validate his
feelings and this will allow his walls to come down and you'll get more out
of him.  He calls up frequently before your class and says he's not feeling
good so this means that something in your class is making him not want to be



Thank you for your email.  First let me say I would never give up on your son.
The only thing I can say is that he can get help from [another teacher] during
lunches.  I suggested that to him today and he said he didn't want to go.
This is a snowball affect and we are going to be moving very fast until
finals.  I will help him when I can, but my time is limited.  I hope that
Adam keeps a positive attitude because I know he can catch up if he wants
to. Thank you.

Honestly, I have to say we are upset with what is going on in
my son's life at school.  He has started seeing a therapist and hopefully he
will put him on a medication to help him with his ADD and mood issues.  I
admit he is challenging but please please please don't give up on him.  Is
it possible that he be assigned a tutor after school to help him?   If you
look at his previous math grades you know he is advanced and has done
amazing in math in the past and has loved it so what is going on, I don't
know.  I have forwarded your email to the counselor so she can be in the loop.
Hormones may be playing a part in his distractability and I am hoping we can
all find a solution together to help my son.


I am writing you of my continued concern with your son in Algebra.  He is
starting to really struggle mainly because he either comes in late to my
class, he is absent from my class, or seems to have something wrong (upset
or not feeling well).  He has not completed his homework fully multiple
times.  I try to help him but he often shuts down.  We do not have the time
everyday to catch him  up and there are high stakes for the last final exam.
If he doesn’t pass he will have to repeat Algebra next year.  He is very
capable so I know this is not necessary.  Let me know if there is anything
else I can do to help.

Thank you.

How can we better work with parents like this? Do you think my colleague should respond to the parent's most recent email? I am curious about your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It All Started in 3rd Grade: A Tribute to a Forever Friendship

Sometimes the best memories we have of school do not involve our teachers, the careful lessons they planned for us, or what we learned. Oftentimes, it is the people sitting next to us in the classroom that touch our lives in more ways than one. I was lucky enough to have met my particularly special classmate back in 1992 in Mrs. Mattson's third grade classroom. Her name is Julia, and she quickly became the best friend I could ever ask for.

Back then, I had no idea how a single person could touch my life or what it meant to truly be called a "best" friend. Julia became like the sister I never had and always wanted. She taught me more about life, patience, empathy, and leading others than I could have ever learned in a classroom. She inspired me to be a better person and to always see the best in others, even when I least wanted to do so.

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of being Julia's Matron of Honor at her wedding and watching her marry a wonderful man and the love of her life of over eleven years. After all the grieving over my aunt's passing, this moment became a welcome bright spot in my life. There is nothing quite like seeing two people madly in love make the commitment to each other for "all the days of their lives" and say yes to eternal love. It is always a joy and miracle to witness firsthand. 

Why am I talking about Julia on my blog about teaching? It's quite simple. Like my Aunt Ellen, Julia has always been one of my greatest life teachers, someone who always guides me in the right direction and lends the kind of accepting ear when I need it the most. I consider myself blessed to have met Julia so early on in my life and even more grateful for the forever friendship we now share -- and always will cherish.

I recently told my students about Julia and how much she means to me. I asked them to think about who their true friends are and told them never to take any of them for granted. Even though they are only 14 years old, I think my students are beginning to see what really matters in friendships and the importance of seeking out others who bring out the best in themselves.

Moreover, Julia is an extremely talented children's book illustrator who has already experienced much success in her blossoming, beginning career. She is a gem to know and a brilliant artist. Please visit her website to see what she has published and what is forthcoming: 

Now, I would like to share with you some of the speech I wrote for Julia and shared at the wedding on Saturday:

I distinctly remember sitting in Mrs. Mattson's 3rd grade class at Highland Elementary School and noticing a new girl in town. Though she was quite smaller in stature than me, something prompted me to eloquently say to her, "I like your pencil pouch." Luckily, Julia accepted my compliment, and I'd like to think she agreed to come over my house for more reason other than to escape her four siblings. Despite the fact that I initially called her "Julia Dones," Julia and I formed an unbreakable bond of friendship then, eighteen years ago.

From the start, I learned a great deal from this eldest member of the "Dones" family who possessed such a calming, reassuring demeanor and the ability to lead by example and draw anything -- and I mean, anything -- with grace and ease. From endless sleepovers, trips to Maine, and summer camps to Dodd Middle School, color guard, Cheshire High, and into the real world of adulthood, Julia has been my rock, my confidant, my mentor, and my best friend through it all. 

As if Julia herself was not an incredible addition to my life, along came Mr. Matthew Perlot, a man I still enjoy calling "Beef" after a hilarious incident with a main course at his junior prom in 1999. I distinctly remember when Julia and Matt first met at the Cheshire Youth Center at our Sweet 16th Birthday. Even though their first dance did not work out as planned at this festivity (As the great Mr. Denos would say, "Whoops!"), Julia and Matt had found each other. As their relationship progressed and love deepened, I felt privileged to witness it all. They were clearly a perfectly matched pair and the most artistic couple at CHS, making Mrs. Benarcryk, of course, proud.

Yes, Julia found her soul mate over eleven years ago, and it has been an absolute honor to call both Julia and Matt close friends and integral parts of my life. Their natural artistry, creativity, passion, love, kindness, patience, and zest for life is infectious and admirable to everyone around them. Very few childhood memories of mine exist without Julia, and I cannot wait to see what new adult memories we create together with our spouses and each other. Thank you for sharing my childhood, Julia, and for always being the best friend anyone could ever ask for. Matt is certainly one lucky man. Greg and I love you both immensely. 

Now, please raise your glasses in honor of a true match made in heaven who finally got their proper first dance. Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Perlot!


Let's here it for forever friendship that all started in a simple elementary school classroom! I can only hope that my own students find this kind of irreplaceable bond with their peers.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Whatever happened to quality writing instruction?

Here is a really interesting article a close friend shared with me today from The Boston Globe. It is disheartening to see how little writing instruction is valued in the middle and high school English classroom these days. Perhaps this piece is a charge to do something about it??

Failure to communicate

The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age

WHEN YOU teach English to college students, you quickly realize two things.

First, many seem to have received little writing instruction in high school. I initially noticed this as an undergraduate English major at Yale, where I helped peers revise their papers. I saw it again in graduate school at Tufts, where I taught freshman writing classes. And it has also struck me at Babson, where, for the past two years, I have instructed first-year students.

The second thing English teachers realize is that correcting students’ papers is tremendously time consuming. I constantly do battle with myself to spend less than 20 minutes on a paper. At meetings, instructors are often urged not to exceed 15 minutes, but I frequently end up spending double that. This can be a genuinely frustrating experience: 50 papers stacked on the coffee table, 10 in the finished pile, and an entire afternoon gone.

But I can’t help it; there’s so much to correct. Subjects don’t agree with verbs. “Its’’ and “it’s’’ are used interchangeably. “They are’’ is confused with “their.’’ And facts too often function as topic sentences. Many of the students whose work I correct are smart, motivated, and quick to incorporate suggestions. But they have either forgotten the rules of writing, or they never learned them in the first place.

Some of the problem, of course, is carelessness. But much of it is not. I have read seniors’ cover letters — letters that aim to snag them a dream job — and they’re frequently riddled with both grammatical and stylistic mistakes.

Inadequate writing skills have led to concern in colleges across the country. In 2007, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that just 24 percent of 12th-graders scored “proficient’’ or better. That same year, more than 80 percent of students at the City University of New York had to enroll in remedial courses in reading, writing, or math.

Vartan Gregorian, the former president of Brown University, has expressed deep concern about the erosion of solid communication skills. “In an age overwhelmed by information (we are told, for example, that all available information doubles every two to three years), we should view this as a crisis, because the ability to read, comprehend, and write — in other words, to organize information into knowledge — can be viewed as tantamount to a survival skill.’’

Which leads to a serious question: why do so many students come to college without a command of fundamentals?

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

The few teachers who do spend day and night reviewing papers deserve both a medal and a hefty raise. As they know, fixing students’ writing is complex; it simply cannot be boiled down to a multiple-choice test or a series of right-and-wrong answers. Which may mean rethinking the way writing is taught in high school — and, perhaps, the way teachers are compensated.

We often belittle English teachers — if you speak and read English, how hard can it be to teach it? — but those with strong communication skills are both rare and valuable. Recall that when Massachusetts implemented a teachers’ test 12 years ago, the public was shocked to discover that more than 30 percent of prospective teachers failed the literacy portion.

Though the media tend to focus on nationwide shortages of math and science teachers — which are indeed acute — finding, coaching, and retaining good English teachers is an underreported struggle. Indeed, as anyone who has received a poorly written e-mail, assessment, memo, cover letter, or report knows, writing — both good and bad — has real power. The National Commission on Writing (a part of the College Board) has calculated that “remedying deficiencies in writing costs American corporations as much as $3.1 billion annually.’’

In an increasingly digital world, writing acts as a vehicle for knowledge — giving it short shrift in the classroom is a serious mistake.

Kara Miller teaches at Babson College.  

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Creating Patient Problem Solvers

This is a link to an interesting talk about math curriculum.  The teacher giving the talk argues that teachers should "be less helpful" to encourage "patient problem solvers."  The video is about 12 minutes long and well worth that time. I hope you enjoy it.

At the beginning, I honestly was not sure what the teacher was getting at. However, a little more time and reflection allowed me to appreciate his discussion about learning from the students' experiences with challenging their critical thinking and problem solving skills. This is a very engaging and interesting process indeed.

One of my colleagues from Harvard, who also enjoyed the film, is a life, career, and social service agency coach.  At the moment, she is coaching five middle school kids from the inner city who have been expelled from school.  The critical thinking and problem solving aspect of the talk went way beyond math for her and certainly for me as well. Please visit her website and read about the incredible work she is doing with her students at

Monday, May 17, 2010

Should chronic student absenteeism equal loss of credit? I think so!

Here is an interesting article that certainly prompted conversation among my colleagues and I. What do you think? The full article and related topics can be found at:

WASHINGTON - Beginning next school year, Montgomery County students who miss class or show up late won't be penalized with a loss of credit.

Currently, students who have five unexcused absences in a class each semester will automatically fail the class. Showing up late for class 15 times in a single semester will also lead to automatic failure.
But these rules, called the "loss of credit" policy, are going away.

In a memo to the County Board of Education, Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast says grades must be an accurate reflection of student achievement and the current policy contradicts that.

The decision to end the "loss of credit" policy was not taken lightly.

A task force made up of school officials, teachers, parents and students spent 18 months studying the idea before recommending that the "loss of credit" policy be retired.

Because it's a change of school regulations, the school board does not get to vote on the decision.

But board member Laura Berthiaume is concerned.

"The message that may be going out is that you can skip class and that there will be no real consequence," she says.
Kids who skip school will still face non-academic punishment.

Weast's memo says consequences for unexcused absences would range from a minimum of a conference to a maximum of detention. He also says each high school will establish a formal process to promote student attendance.

Berthiaume says the change in policy may give the students who are the least engaged more reason to skip. In addition, she says it could be a "free pass" for bright kids who can get away with missing class and still pass exams.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Remembering My Aunt's Legacy

On May 11, my beloved Aunt Ellen passed away, her long battle with cancer finally ending peacefully. Obviously, her loss took quite a toll on me, as it did for my mother and the rest of her family. To us, Ellen was always the caregiver and person whom you could rely on to make everything OK and brighten even the darkest moment of a given day.

While honoring and remembering her life up North in Maine this past week, I had the chance to revisit a poem I wrote for her this past Christmas. Since she was one of my greatest teachers about life, I would like to share my poem with you:

For My Aunt Ellen 

My Aunt Ellen is to me the greatest person in this world,
the kind of rare star you hope to see glimmer in the night sky.

Aunt Ellen has the biggest heart with the most caring touch,
always knowing how to make you smile,
always placing others before herself.

Aunt Ellen's soul is made of pure love;
her heart exudes intense warmth and genuine hope.
In my eyes, Aunt 
Ellen will always be 
the most beautiful person to walk this Earth.

Aunt Ellen is the smartest and wisest woman I know,
whose life experiences speak for themselves.
I appreciate all the advice she has given me;
I will take her words with me all the days of my life.
The memories I will forever cherish,
from Nubble Light to ‘Gate to the Sunshine State.

For all Aunt Ellen has done,
I will forever be thankful.
My love for her only grows more
with each day that passes.

On a high pedestal is where I hold Aunt Ellen,
for she is admired more than she will ever know.

Having Aunt Ellen a part of my life is the greatest gift of all;
being in her presence is God's blessing to me.
Giving, helpful, loving, caring, selfless, and kind,
there is no one who compares.

Aunt Ellen is not only my favorite aunt but also
a leader, mentor, role model, and best friend.
To be like her would be my only wish.
Looking deep inside of her,
I see that strong, wise woman I hope to one day become.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Mom and Aunt: The Best Teachers I've Ever Had

Today being Mother's Day, I cannot help but stop to reflect on my mother and the women who mean the most to me in my life. At the top of this list, of course, is my Aunt Ellen, who is continuing to fight her battle with terminal cancer and will soon pass away to the next life.

Over the past year and especially the last few months, my family has been consumed with a range of rollercoaster emotions surrounding Ellen. We completed her "bucket list" and tried to make as many fun, happy, and unforgettable moments as possible for her. We laughed, we cried, and most importantly, we cherished the time we had left together. As I mentioned in a post last month, Ellen has always been like a second mom to me in addition to a close friend, confidant, godmother, and one of the toughest, strongest, and most resilient women I have had the honor of knowing. I feel beyond blessed to have had her as such an instrumental part of my life, basically since the day I was born.

While I do not have the privilege of having any siblings of my own, I have been humbled to witness one of the most pure bonds of all in my mom and aunt: sisterhood. For the past three weeks, my mom has been the primary caregiver to my aunt at Hospice, tending to her every need and want in anyway she can. Whether it is leading her to the bathroom, holding her up in bed, feeding her her favorite custard, or combing her hair for hours on end, my mom is constantly at Ellen's side. She tells me she would have it no other way, and I truly believe that. The courage, inner strength, and pure love my mom has shown her own sister is a model for how I want to lead my life and show my love to those who matter most, especially at life's most fragile and unpredictable moments.

Ellen has always been a model for selflessness, generosity, kindness, and love, and now my mom -- in the most tender and precious of ways -- is able to return the favor. Even though I said my goodbyes to Ellen last month, her losing battle to cancer is always at the forefront of my mind. I wish there was more I could do to help ease her pain, make her smile, or be there physically for her (She is in Maine). I cannot leave my life here, though, so I do all I can to be there emotionally for my mom and show Ellen love in the form of phone calls, letters, cards, etc. It is often the little things that can hopefully make a big difference, and I know Ellen understands why I cannot be up North with her more.

How does any of this relate to my classroom teaching, you ask? Simple. I am a better person having known my Aunt Ellen and mother, and I aim to help instill the values they taught me early on in my students every day. My mom and aunt's undying love, hope, courage, wisdom, passion, zest for life, and willingness to persevere through adversity has inspired me to be the best person I can be, both in and out of the classroom. Both women have taught me what really matters in life -- family, love, health, personal well-being, and kindness -- and I aim to live these values and lead by example every day for my students.

As Ellen prepares to make the final transition from life to death, I continue to be in awe of her passion, optimism, and love of life. Physically, there is nothing left to her; the doctors call her a "medical miracle." Still, her mind is still so clear and sharp. She is not yet willing to leave the ones she love, and I can honestly say we are not either, even though we want her to be out of pain and at eternal peace.

I hope and pray that Ellen may find everlasting peace and happiness in the afterlife very soon. I hope to make her proud of me and aim to honor her legacy in all aspects of my life, especially as a daughter, wife, friend, teacher, and one day, a mother. Ellen exemplifies what life is really all about and what really matters at the end of the day. I could not ask for better role models in her or my mom. I only hope that my life and teaching makes them proud -- and that Ellen can look down from heaven and smile at what she sees me doing.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The New Bathroom Wall.....

A close friend of mine shared a very disturbing article with me this morning that hit home as an educator. I am often disgusted at the way my adolescents are speaking to one another today, and much of this kind of bullying and taunting extends well beyond the school walls.

Many teenagers are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and now to publicly post insults and deragatory comments about their peers. This increasing trend is heartbreaking and makes me wonder  -- What has happened to teaching our students character and values? How can we teach our students how to steer clear of all these negative influences??

Check out the full article below and at:

May 5, 2010

Teenage Insults, Scrawled on Web, Not on Walls

It is the online version of the bathroom wall in school, the place to scrawl raw, anonymous gossip., a relatively new social networking site, has become a magnet for comments, many of them nasty and sexual, among theFacebook generation.
While Formspring is still under the radar of many parents and guidance counselors, over the last two months it has become an obsession for thousands of teenagers nationwide, a place to trade comments and questions like: Are you still friends with julia? Why wasn’t sam invited to lauren’s party? You’re not as hot as u think u are. Do you wear a d cup? You talk too much. You look stupid when you laugh.
By setting up a free Formspring account and linking it to their Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook accounts, young people invite their hundreds of online friends to ask questions or post comments, without having to identify themselves.
In part, Formspring is just the latest place to hang out and exchange gossip, as teenagers have always done. But because of the anonymity, the banter is unvarnished.
Comments and questions go into a private mailbox, where the user can ignore, delete or answer them. Only the answered ones are posted publicly — leading parents and guidance counselors to wonder why so many young people make public so many nasty comments about their looks, friends and sexual habits.
“I’d never heard of Formspring until yesterday, but when I started asking kids, every seventh and eighth grader I asked said they used it,” said Christine Ruth, a middle school counselor in Linwood, N.J. “In seventh grade, especially, it’s a lot of ‘Everyone knows you’re a slut,’ or ‘You’re ugly.’ It seems like even when it’s inappropriate and vicious, the kids want the attention, so they post it. And who knows what they’re getting that’s so devastating that they don’t post it?”
Users can choose not to accept anonymous questions, but most young people seem to ignore that option. And some Formspring users say it is precisely the negative comments that interest them.
“Nice stuff is not why you get it,” said Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City. “I think it’s interesting to find out what people really think that they don’t have the guts to say to you. If it’s hurtful, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t really mean anything.”
Ariane, who has more than 100 posts on her site, said she had not been terribly bothered by anything she has read so far, but she acknowledged that after one comment about a certain pair of leggings, she stopped wearing them.
Her father, Larry Stern, who like most other parents interviewed had never heard of Formspring until a reporter’s call, was aghast.
“It’s just shocking that kids have access to all these things on the Internet and we don’t even know about it,” Mr. Stern said. “And it’s disturbing that what goes on there will influence how somebody behaves. How do you block it? How do you monitor it?”
Even teenagers who do not set up Formspring accounts can peruse their friends’ accounts to see if they are mentioned.
Many families on Long Island became aware of Formspring after the March suicide of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old West Islip soccer player who had received many nasty messages.
Since it began in late November, Formspring has caught on rapidly. More than 28 million people visit the site each month, 14 million of them in the United States, according to Quantcast, a service that analyzes Web traffic.
The company, started in Indianapolis by John Wechsler and Ade Olonoh, recently raised $2.5 million from a group of Silicon Valley investors and moved to San Francisco.
According to Formspring, more than three million questions have been asked and answered on the site. Mr. Olonoh said in an e-mail message that the company did not know what percentage of users were teenagers.
Formspring is not the first site to allow anonymous comments. Some schools say students have been demoralized by comments on Honesty Box, a Facebook add-on. And Juicy Campus, a college gossip site, caused so much grief that some colleges blocked it, and some state attorneys general began consumer-protection investigations. The site shut down last year.
Formspring is one of many question-and-answer Internet sites that are widely used to find, say, the calorie count of avocados. But Formspring spread like wildfire among young people, who used it to for more intimate topics — or flat-out cyberbullying.
Many schools say they have seen students crushed by criticism of their breasts, their body odor or their behavior at the last party.
“There’s nothing positive on there, absolutely nothing, but the kids don’t seem to be able to stop reading, even if people are saying terrible things about them,” said Maggie Dock, a middle school counselor in Kinnelon, N.J. “I asked one girl, ‘If someone was throwing rocks at you, what would you do?’ She said she’d run, she’d move away. But she won’t stop reading what people say about her.”
In some schools, the Formspring craze may already be burning out.
“We all got Formspring about two months ago, when it began showing in people’s Facebook status,” said a 14-year-old from a New York City private school. “It’s actually gone down a little bit in the past few weeks, at least in my grade, because a lot of people realized it wasn’t a good thing, that people were getting hurt, or posting awful comments.”
Some young Formspring users say they strive for a light touch in answering questions about their relationships (hookups, that is, or “hu” in online parlance). Several said they admired friends’ skills at deflecting the often-asked question about how far they had gone, with answers like, “I’ve been to Morocco.”
One mother in Westchester County, N.Y., discovered Formspring when her daughter came to her, sobbing, after reading putdowns of her breasts and her teeth.
“She was very, very upset,” the woman said. “She’s always been self-conscious, and in a way this just flushed out what people might been thinking all along. She worked very hard on figuring out how to answer. But there’s a kind of obsessiveness to it. She still wants to read everything.”
Unknown to her daughter, the woman has learned her password, and occasionally checks her Facebook and Formspring accounts.
“The comments are all gross and sexual,” the mother said. “And yet, of course, this is coming from her friends. I wish I could just erase it, but all of her friends are online, and so much of their social interaction is online that I don’t think I could just take away her Internet access. But I do think this whole online social media thing is a huge experiment on our children.”

How soon does morality develop in humans?

I found a very interesting New York Times article this week about the morality of babies. I hope you enjoy this fascinating piece!
May 3, 2010

The Moral Life of Babies

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.
This incident occurred in one of several psychology studies that I have been involved with at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University in collaboration with my colleague (and wife), Karen Wynn, who runs the lab, and a graduate student, Kiley Hamlin, who is the lead author of the studies. We are one of a handful of research teams around the world exploring the moral life of babies.
Like many scientists and humanists, I have long been fascinated by the capacities and inclinations of babies and children. The mental life of young humans not only is an interesting topic in its own right; it also raises — and can help answer — fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology, including how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature. In graduate school, I studied early language development and later moved on to fairly traditional topics in cognitive development, like how we come to understand the minds of other people — what they know, want and experience.
But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step. Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?
A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.
Smart Babies
Babies seem spastic in their actions, undisciplined in their attention. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the baby “a perfect idiot,” and in 1890 William James famously described a baby’s mental life as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” A sympathetic parent might see the spark of consciousness in a baby’s large eyes and eagerly accept the popular claim that babies are wonderful learners, but it is hard to avoid the impression that they begin as ignorant as bread loaves. Many developmental psychologists will tell you that the ignorance of human babies extends well into childhood. For many years the conventional view was that young humans take a surprisingly long time to learn basic facts about the physical world (like that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight) and basic facts about people (like that they have beliefs and desires and goals) — let alone how long it takes them to learn about morality.
I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken.
A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies. It’s a challenge to study the cognitive abilities of any creature that lacks language, but human babies present an additional difficulty, because, even compared to rats or birds, they are behaviorally limited: they can’t run mazes or peck at levers. In the 1980s, however, psychologists interested in exploring how much babies know began making use of one of the few behaviors that young babies can control: the movement of their eyes. The eyes are a window to the baby’s soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected. And when given a choice between two things to look at, babies usually opt to look at the more pleasing thing. You can use “looking time,” then, as a rough but reliable proxy for what captures babies’ attention: what babies are surprised by or what babies like.
The studies in the 1980s that made use of this methodology were able to discover surprising things about what babies know about the nature and workings of physical objects — a baby’s “naïve physics.” Psychologists — most notably Elizabeth Spelke and Renée Baillargeon — conducted studies that essentially involved showing babies magic tricks, events that seemed to violate some law of the universe: you remove the supports from beneath a block and it floats in midair, unsupported; an object disappears and then reappears in another location; a box is placed behind a screen, the screen falls backward into empty space. Like adults, babies tend to linger on such scenes — they look longer at them than at scenes that are identical in all regards except that they don’t violate physical laws. This suggests that babies have expectations about how objects should behave. A vast body of research now suggests that — contrary to what was taught for decades to legions of psychology undergraduates — babies think of objects largely as adults do, as connected masses that move as units, that are solid and subject to gravity and that move in continuous paths through space and time.
Other studies, starting with a 1992 paper by my wife, Karen, have found that babies can do rudimentary math with objects. The demonstration is simple. Show a baby an empty stage. Raise a screen to obscure part of the stage. In view of the baby, put a Mickey Mouse doll behind the screen. Then put another Mickey Mouse doll behind the screen. Now drop the screen. Adults expect two dolls — and so do 5-month-olds: if the screen drops to reveal one or three dolls, the babies look longer, in surprise, than they do if the screen drops to reveal two.
A second wave of studies used looking-time methods to explore what babies know about the minds of others — a baby’s “naïve psychology.” Psychologists had known for a while that even the youngest of babies treat people different from inanimate objects. Babies like to look at faces; they mimic them, they smile at them. They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed.
But the new studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants. They expect someone who reaches for an object to reach for the same object later, even if its location has changed. And well before their 2nd birthdays, babies are sharp enough to know that other people can have false beliefs. The psychologists Kristine Onishi and Renée Baillargeon have found that 15-month-olds expect that if a person sees an object in one box, and then the object is moved to another box when the person isn’t looking, the person will later reach into the box where he first saw the object, not the box where it actually is. That is, toddlers have a mental model not merely of the world but of the world as understood by someone else.
These discoveries inevitably raise a question: If babies have such a rich understanding of objects and people so early in life, why do they seem so ignorant and helpless? Why don’t they put their knowledge to more active use? One possible answer is that these capacities are the psychological equivalent of physical traits like testicles or ovaries, which are formed in infancy and then sit around, useless, for years and years. Another possibility is that babies do, in fact, use their knowledge from Day 1, not for action but for learning. One lesson from the study of artificial intelligence (and from cognitive science more generally) is that an empty head learns nothing: a system that is capable of rapidly absorbing information needs to have some prewired understanding of what to pay attention to and what generalizations to make. Babies might start off smart, then, because it enables them to get smarter.
Nice Babies
Psychologists like myself who are interested in the cognitive capacities of babies and toddlers are now turning our attention to whether babies have a “naïve morality.” But there is reason to proceed with caution. Morality, after all, is a different sort of affair than physics or psychology. The truths of physics and psychology are universal: objects obey the same physical laws everywhere; and people everywhere have minds, goals, desires and beliefs. But the existence of a universal moral code is a highly controversial claim; there is considerable evidence for wide variation from society to society.
In the journal Science a couple of months ago, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and several of his colleagues reported a cross-cultural study of 15 diverse populations and found that people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade. Henrich and his colleagues concluded that much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.
At the same time, though, people everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice. These universals make evolutionary sense. Since natural selection works, at least in part, at a genetic level, there is a logic to being instinctively kind to our kin, whose survival and well-being promote the spread of our genes. More than that, it is often beneficial for humans to work together with other humans, which means that it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals. All this is reason to consider the innateness of at least basic moral concepts.
In addition, scientists know that certain compassionate feelings and impulses emerge early and apparently universally in human development. These are not moral concepts, exactly, but they seem closely related. One example is feeling pain at the pain of others. In his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Charles Darwin, a keen observer of human nature, tells the story of how his first son, William, was fooled by his nurse into expressing sympathy at a very young age: “When a few days over 6 months old, his nurse pretended to cry, and I saw that his face instantly assumed a melancholy expression, with the corners of his mouth strongly depressed.”
There seems to be something evolutionarily ancient to this empathetic response. If you want to cause a rat distress, you can expose it to the screams of other rats. Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying, suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else’s pain, not merely to a certain pitch of sound. Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy. There are individual differences, to be sure, in the intensity of response: some babies are great soothers; others don’t care as much. But the basic impulse seems common to all. (Some other primates behave similarly: the primatologist Frans de Waal reports that chimpanzees “will approach a victim of attack, put an arm around her and gently pat her back or groom her.” Monkeys, on the other hand, tend to shun victims of aggression.)
Some recent studies have explored the existence of behavior in toddlers that is “altruistic” in an even stronger sense — like when they give up their time and energy to help a stranger accomplish a difficult task. The psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have put toddlers in situations in which an adult is struggling to get something done, like opening a cabinet door with his hands full or trying to get to an object out of reach. The toddlers tend to spontaneously help, even without any prompting, encouragement or reward.
Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.
Babies and toddlers might not know or exhibit any of these moral subtleties. Their sympathetic reactions and motivations — including their desire to alleviate the pain of others — may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder. Even if that is true, though, it is hard to conceive of a moral system that didn’t have, as a starting point, these empathetic capacities. As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational. “ ’Tis not contrary to reason,” he wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.
Moral-Baby Experiments
So what do babies really understand about morality? Our first experiments exploring this question were done in collaboration with a postdoctoral researcher named Valerie Kuhlmeier (who is now an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario). Building on previous work by the psychologists David and Ann Premack, we began by investigating what babies think about two particular kinds of action: helping and hindering.
Our experiments involved having children watch animated movies of geometrical characters with faces. In one, a red ball would try to go up a hill. On some attempts, a yellow square got behind the ball and gently nudged it upward; in others, a green triangle got in front of it and pushed it down. We were interested in babies’ expectations about the ball’s attitudes — what would the baby expect the ball to make of the character who helped it and the one who hindered it? To find out, we then showed the babies additional movies in which the ball either approached the square or the triangle. When the ball approached the triangle (the hinderer), both 9- and 12-month-olds looked longer than they did when the ball approached the square (the helper). This was consistent with the interpretation that the former action surprised them; they expected the ball to approach the helper. A later study, using somewhat different stimuli, replicated the finding with 10-month-olds, but found that 6-month-olds seem to have no expectations at all. (This effect is robust only when the animated characters have faces; when they are simple faceless figures, it is apparently harder for babies to interpret what they are seeing as a social interaction.)
This experiment was designed to explore babies’ expectations about social interactions, not their moral capacities per se. But if you look at the movies, it’s clear that, at least to adult eyes, there is some latent moral content to the situation: the triangle is kind of a jerk; the square is a sweetheart. So we set out to investigate whether babies make the same judgments about the characters that adults do. Forget about how babies expect the ball to act toward the other characters; what do babies themselves think about the square and the triangle? Do they prefer the good guy and dislike the bad guy?
Here we began our more focused investigations into baby morality. For these studies, parents took their babies to the Infant Cognition Center, which is within one of the Yale psychology buildings. (The center is just a couple of blocks away from where Stanley Milgram did his famous experiments on obedience in the early 1960s, tricking New Haven residents into believing that they had severely harmed or even killed strangers with electrical shocks.) The parents were told about what was going to happen and filled out consent forms, which described the study, the risks to the baby (minimal) and the benefits to the baby (minimal, though it is a nice-enough experience). Parents often asked, reasonably enough, if they would learn how their baby does, and the answer was no. This sort of study provides no clinical or educational feedback about individual babies; the findings make sense only when computed as a group.
For the experiment proper, a parent will carry his or her baby into a small testing room. A typical experiment takes about 15 minutes. Usually, the parent sits on a chair, with the baby on his or her lap, though for some studies, the baby is strapped into a high chair with the parent standing behind. At this point, some of the babies are either sleeping or too fussy to continue; there will then be a short break for the baby to wake up or calm down, but on average this kind of study ends up losing about a quarter of the subjects. Just as critics describe much of experimental psychology as the study of the American college undergraduate who wants to make some extra money or needs to fulfill an Intro Psych requirement, there’s some truth to the claim that this developmental work is a science of the interested and alert baby.
In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided not to use two-dimensional animated movies but rather a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record not the babies’ looking time but rather which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.
(Experimental minutiae: What if babies simply like the color red or prefer squares or something like that? To control for this, half the babies got the yellow square as the helper; half got it as the hinderer. What about problems of unconscious cueing and unconscious bias? To avoid this, at the moment when the two characters were offered on the tray, the parent had his or her eyes closed, and the experimenter holding out the characters and recording the responses hadn’t seen the puppet show, so he or she didn’t know who was the good guy and who the bad guy.)
One question that arose with these experiments was how to understand the babies’ preference: did they act as they did because they were attracted to the helpful individual or because they were repelled by the hinderer or was it both? We explored this question in a further series of studies that introduced a neutral character, one that neither helps nor hinders. We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.
Does our research show that babies believe that the helpful character is good and the hindering character is bad? Not necessarily. All that we can safely infer from what the babies reached for is that babies prefer the good guy and show an aversion to the bad guy. But what’s exciting here is that these preferences are based on how one individual treated another, on whether one individual was helping another individual achieve its goals or hindering it. This is preference of a very special sort; babies were responding to behaviors that adults would describe as nice or mean. When we showed these scenes to much older kids — 18-month-olds — and asked them, “Who was nice? Who was good?” and “Who was mean? Who was bad?” they responded as adults would, identifying the helper as nice and the hinderer as mean.
To increase our confidence that the babies we studied were really responding to niceness and naughtiness, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin, in a separate series of studies, created different sets of one-act morality plays to show the babies. In one, an individual struggled to open a box; the lid would be partly opened but then fall back down. Then, on alternating trials, one puppet would grab the lid and open it all the way, and another puppet would jump on the box and slam it shut. In another study (the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article), a puppet would play with a ball. The puppet would roll the ball to another puppet, who would roll it back, and the first puppet would roll the ball to a different puppet who would run away with it. In both studies, 5-month-olds preferred the good guy — the one who helped to open the box; the one who rolled the ball back — to the bad guy. This all suggests that the babies we studied have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior, one that spans a range of actions.
A further question that arises is whether babies possess more subtle moral capacities than preferring good and avoiding bad. Part and parcel of adult morality, for instance, is the idea that good acts should meet with a positive response and bad acts with a negative response — justice demands the good be rewarded and the bad punished. For our next studies, we turned our attention back to the older babies and toddlers and tried to explore whether the preferences that we were finding had anything to do with moral judgment in this mature sense. In collaboration with Neha Mahajan, a psychology graduate student at Yale, Hamlin, Wynn and I exposed 21-month-olds to the good guy/bad guy situations described above, and we gave them the opportunity to reward or punish either by giving a treat to, or taking a treat from, one of the characters. We found that when asked to give, they tended to chose the positive character; when asked to take, they tended to choose the negative one.
Dispensing justice like this is a more elaborate conceptual operation than merely preferring good to bad, but there are still-more-elaborate moral calculations that adults, at least, can easily make. For example: Which individual would you prefer — someone who rewarded good guys and punished bad guys or someone who punished good guys and rewarded bad guys? The same amount of rewarding and punishing is going on in both cases, but by adult lights, one individual is acting justly and the other isn’t. Can babies see this, too?
To find out, we tested 8-month-olds by first showing them a character who acted as a helper (for instance, helping a puppet trying to open a box) and then presenting a scene in which this helper was the target of a good action by one puppet and a bad action by another puppet. Then we got the babies to choose between these two puppets. That is, they had to choose between a puppet who rewarded a good guy versus a puppet who punished a good guy. Likewise, we showed them a character who acted as a hinderer (for example, keeping a puppet from opening a box) and then had them choose between a puppet who rewarded the bad guy versus one who punished the bad guy.
The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.
All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.
Is This the Morality We’re Looking For?
What do these findings about babies’ moral notions tell us about adult morality? Some scholars think that the very existence of an innate moral sense has profound implications. In 1869, Alfred Russel Wallace, who along with Darwin discovered natural selection, wrote that certain human capacities — including “the higher moral faculties” — are richer than what you could expect from a product of biological evolution. He concluded that some sort of godly force must intervene to create these capacities. (Darwin was horrified at this suggestion, writing to Wallace, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”)
A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”
The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)
The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.
But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.
The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, “Because I wanted to,” this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like “It was my turn” or “It’s my fair share” are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.
The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” puts it, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.”
Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale. His new book, “How Pleasure Works,” will be published next month.