The Program on Culture and Formation

The Moral Lives of Children Project

“In an age when there is no longer a clear moral code and where many more things are tolerated, the responsibility for working out how you want to live your life is something that children are having to confront much more on their own.”

—David Buckingham, London University

Adults have always worried about children—the values they hold, the kind of people they will grow up to be, and the lives they will lead. It would be tempting to dismiss present anxieties about the younger generation as just “more of the same,” but this would be too hasty. The experience of growing up has radically changed. Indeed, current social and cultural conditions suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a new period of childhood—one that is not well understood. The approaches for nurturing and guiding the young through it are simply inadequate to the new challenges we face. The Moral Lives of Children Project addresses these challenges head on.

Critics today discuss a wide array of problems that affect children, from the economic effects of divorce to the consequences of playing violent computer games to the health impacts of obesity. While these are undeniably important, concern centered on immediate and measurable consequences can also obscure other, less tangible but fundamental transformations in the moral lives of children. Recent social transformations have altered and destabilized the conditions of childhood with enduring consequences for questions of character, maturation, stability, moral coherence, self-knowledge, and identity. In short, youth today are faced with more choices, greater ambiguity, and greater instability than ever before, but also with less guidance and fewer encouragements to achieve maturity than ever before.

The objective of The Moral Lives of Children Project is to investigate the complex and changing conditions in which formation takes place and to grapple with the consequences. What are the social forces and cultural imperatives—for example, child-rearing practices, standards of achievement, visions of the future—that are shaping the lives of children? How does this impact and orient them? What sort of people are being “produced” and with what implications for self-conception and social engagement?

Current Initiatives

View a list of select publications >>


Crawford, Matthew. “Medicate U.” The American Interest 4.1 (2008): 108–114.

Davis, Joseph E. Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Davis, Joseph, and James Davison Hunter. “Cultural Politics at the Edge of Life.” Journal of Policy History 7.1 (1995): 103–127.

Hunter, James Davison. “Leading Children Beyond Good and Evil.” First Things (May 2000): 36–42.

Hunter, James Davison, and Jeffrey S. Dill. “Education and the Culture Wars: Morality and Conflict in American Schools.” Handbook of the Sociology of Morality. Ed. Steven Hitlin and Stephen Vaisey. New York: Springer, 2010. 275–291.

Song, Felicia Wu. Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

Milner, Jr., Murray. Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Issues of The Hedgehog Review

Who We Are

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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