THE POLITICAL LIFE OF CHILDREN. By Robert Coles. Atlantic Monthly Press. 341 pp. $19.95; THE MORAL LIFE OF CHILDREN. By Robert Coles. Atlantic Monthly Press. 302 pp. $19.95

ONE OF JIMMY CARTER'S unforgiveable mistakes as president was his revelation that he thought his 12-year-old had opinions worth listening to. The public hoot that greeted this earnest statement still echoes in negative assessments of the Carter presidency. We are a nation, you see, that sentimentalizes children or dismisses them, but we do not take them seriously. Nor do we have much regard for people who do.

The author of these two books is a notable exception to this prevalent attitude. We do respect Robert Coles. Of course, Coles is a psychiatrist with the imprimatur of Harvard University, but it is not his medical or professorial credentials that have won him respect, but his work as a social observer over the last 25 years. And though we are not inclined to pay much attention to adults who are concerned with the young, we have been compelled by the volume and integrity of his writings to notice him, despite the fact that the heart of his work is, as he himself describes it, "listening . . . then describing what has been heard -- selecting the most revealing excerpts, I hope, from the endless stories children have to tell."

Children tend not to say what we want to hear when we want to hear it, but, to the patient, perceptive adult who takes them seriously, their words are eloquent, disturbing, transforming. Most of us are not good listeners, but the moral and political life of our nation would take a giant leap forward if we were to pay close attention to this man who is.

During the past 10 years, Coles, often accompanied by his wife and sons, has been observing and listening to find out how children develop morally and politically. To do so he has revisited persons he has worked with before, but, for the first time, he has taken his work beyond the bounds of his own country, returning repeatedly to South Africa, Brazil, Northern Ireland, Poland, Nicaragua and Canada.

These two volumes on the political and moral lives of children are the result of that decade of listening, but, reading the books, it is clear that the origins of the work go back at least as far as the author's days as a psychiatric resident, because learning how to listen to children has been a long and difficult process. Often as Coles admits, his psychoanalytic training has proved a hindrance rather than a help. In his field work which developed into Children of Crisis, Coles met children in situations of severe stress who were apparently coping quite well. How does a psychiatrist deal with children who have none of the symptoms he has been taught to treat?

Cole says that if his wife had had her way back in 1969 the subject of the moral life of children would have been their major preoccupation all these years. "But in my mind their 'moral life' meant their psychological ways of dealing with perplexing and even dangerous circumstances. I was not ready to chronicle the moral ups and downs of these children's lives; I wanted to show (when I paid any attention at all to the moral side of things) what kind of psychological turmoil a child's conscience can incite, or indeed, constrain, dampen."

It was more than 10 years before Coles himself began actively to observe the moral life of children, though Ruby, whom he first met in New Orleans in 1961, had even then refused to fit into his psychological cubby holes. Day after day, week after week, this 6-year-old black child had walked past a line of screaming, threatening white adults to desegregate (by herself) a formerly all-white school. As a therapist, Coles, kept looking for signs of the terrors he felt sure the child was experiencing. How long could she deny them? Yet Ruby endured, returning smiles for jeers, and praying for her tormenters each night before she went peacefully to sleep.

Coles's wife kept urging him to investigate this. Where did such moral strength come from? There was no proper psychological explanation. Ruby wouldn't make the first stage in psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's scheme of moral development, but this child and other unlikely children do exist and are, as Coles makes us realize, well worth listening to. Among the children Coles came to know and marvel over are a 10-year-old Brazilian hustler whose family barely survives from one day to the next, but who has drawn the line at sexual pandering or drug dealing, and a teen-age prostitute who feeds her younger brothers and sisters and gives the rest of her earnings to a Roman Catholic orphanage.

These are children for whom morality is not discussed as an academic exercise but "who were all trying to find moral answers for themselves through the daily steps they took."

To say Coles came to know a child is to say that over a period of years he visited this child repeatedly, usually in the child's own home. Unlike most social scientists, he does not give tests or fill out questionnaires, he converses with his young subjects. Sometimes the basis for the conversation is a picture the child has painted. Thirty of these paintings are included in The Political Life of Children, four in The Moral Life of Children. Because Coles' relationship with a child goes over a period of years, he can reveal how a child's attitude and/or behavior changes as he or she grows older. In the case of Ruby she continues to grow as a thoughtful and compassionate human being, but, sadly, not all the changes Coles notes in the lives of his young subjects are for the better.

That children have a political life at all is a surprise to many adults. Or if children's political concerns are acknowledged, the assumption is made that their ideas are determined by the family and community in which children live. What Coles and his wife and sons and associates began to discover as they listened to the children themselves is that while the political thoughts and actions of children are certainly influenced by the concerns of their environments, in many instances children are not simply parroting the cant of their elders but struggling with their own political concepts in the midst of influences that affect their lives.

A reading of The Political Life of Children should cure any adult of a sentimental view of childhood. If hearing the words of Alice, the crippled child who is a runner for a Protestant paramilitary group in Belfast doesn't do it, listening to the story of Lon, an orphaned Cambodian refugee, or studying the painting done by Hendrick, a young Afrikaner, surely will.

Late one night I kept my husband awake telling him the difference between the Polish children Coles interviewed and the Nicaraguan. All these children live in communist countries, but the Polish children without exception despised the Jaruzelski government as an interloping force in their beloved nation, whereas the children of Nicaragua, especially the poor, but also, if grudgingly, the sons and daughters of the rich, felt that the Sandinistas, for all their faults, had given back to the people the country the Samozas and their North American allies had stolen away. "I think the president should appoint Robert Coles as National Security Adviser," I blurted out. Now, several weeks later, in the cold light of a winter morning, I still think that is one of my better ideas.