Raising children to understand and practice morality is a fundamental concern for parents and societies. In many ways we are more aware of morality than past generations because never before have we had such vast and intimate media access to people’s actions. Almost instantly and often even in real-time we see events such as mass shootings, child abuse, and business fraud in our own communities as well as worldwide. At the same time we also see people who become heroes in these same situations and there are those who work daily in difficult moral-infused settings. The presence of such events often keeps the question of how to foster morality in our children as they develop and grow into adults front and center for us.
Morality is of interest to scholars of many disciplines including psychology—our focus here, anthropology, biology, economics, and most recently neuroscience. This again highlights how integral morality is to us as humans as well as how multifaceted it is. In this article we’ll look at the definitional components of morality, how morality develops through childhood and adolescence, what influences its development, and some fundamental ways parents and caregivers can foster morality in children.
At its most basic level morality is a system of principles and values that differentiate right from wrong. Berkowitz and Grych identify eight overarching and fundamental components of morality which together form a synergy:
The next four are “meta-moral” characteristics and are necessary for moral functioning:
Each of these components influences and is influenced by the others and their individual and overall development is determined by factors and processes both internal and external to the child.
In the area of morality the theory which addresses changes over time and is most often cited is Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral development stage theory. Kohlberg’s theory is an extension of Jean Piaget’s stage theory of moral development, which is based on his theory of cognitive development. Piagetian underpinnings are related to how children construct knowledge and how they move from preoperational thought in early childhood which is rife with gaps in logic and marked by egocentrism (the inability to see the perspective of others), to concrete operations in middle childhood where children can apply logic to situations, to formal operations in adolescence which allows the consideration of hypothetical situations and more fully grasping how others view the world.
Kohlberg’s theory has six stages within three levels:
In truth Kohlberg and the score of researchers who have followed find very little evidence of most people operating at stage 6, with only individuals such as Jesus, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. noted as having reached this stage. Most adults operate at Level II while occasionally at stage 5 in Level III. Nonetheless it is still important we strive to instill in our children and that we ourselves practice the highest level of morality possible.
While not addressing stages of moral development other theoretical perspectives have been applied to morality including Gilligan’s morality of caring revolving around girls and women having a different view than males, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory with the development of the superego as one’s conscience, Skinner’s behaviorism that morality is learned through conditioning (rewards and punishments), and Bandura’s social learning theory with the view that morality is attained through observation/modeling.
When researchers study the development of morality in children they often do so in the context of distinct situational areas. Let’s take a look at two major areas from the research literature.
Intentionality. One of the areas most often investigated is the development of an understanding of intentionality when harm is done. For instance when asked about the consequence a child should receive who breaks many objects unintentionally compared to a child who breaks just one intentionally most preschoolers will say the child who broke the most should receive the greatest punishment, even when they have a rudimentary understanding there is a difference in intent. Between the ages of 5 and 16 there is increasing consideration of the intentions involved and a shift takes place where the recommendation for punishment goes to the person who did harm intentionally.
Additionally in middle childhood children become more able to consider the consequences of being neglectful, in this example when something gets broken not because someone intentionally broke it but because they did not take an action to stop the outcome.
Fairness and Equity. Another central tenant of morality revolves around fairness and here too there are distinct developmental changes. One of the major ways this is studied is through the allocation of resources. Preschoolers actually prefer an equal distribution regardless of the behavior (negative or positive) of their peers while once children reach middle childhood they begin to consider merit, need, and the welfare of others when determining fairness. When they themselves must determine how resources are allocated to a group, older children will take social factors into consideration such as the history of the relationships, status of members, and their own reputation connected to the decisions they make. As adolescents the potential rises to make decisions without so much emphasis on what they as an individual will lose by allocating resources to others.
Influences on Morality
Thus far we have looked at aspects primarily internal to the child but moral development occurs in a decidedly social context. The most powerful external social influences are parents and peers.
The attachment relationship between parent and child is formed during the first year of life and is a critical foundation for moral development. Secure attachment allows the child to build trust, empathy, and a sense of worth while insecure attachment represents a parent-child relationship which is fragile and often related to a lack of empathy and trust in the child. Secure attachment is built on parental warmth and responsiveness and as the child enters toddlerhood and beyond represents a positive and mutually responsive social orientation and reciprocal relationship that supports the internalization of moral values and principles.
Parenting style makes an entrance and authoritative parenting with its high responsiveness yet appropriately demanding expectations for the child is one of the most robust for supporting moral development. One of the fundamental mechanisms is the use of reasoning where the authoritative parent sets expectations for the child’s behavior and discusses and negotiates topics of morality in the context of conflicts. Such parents dialogue about how another person feels when their child physically or emotionally hurts them and they use increasingly sophisticated justifications for moral behavior as the child matures particularly around harm, welfare, and rights. Authoritative parents are skilled at using scaffolding where they model and then over time expect their child to become more independent and successful in negotiating and resolving complex moral dilemmas in ways that are prosocial.
The role of peers is repeatedly associated with moral development. With peers, children have extensive opportunities to negotiate, cooperate, and compromise and often must work harder than with a parent who is more able and willing to adjust to the child’s needs and views. High quality friendships share many elements of high quality parenting by representing a meaningful, valued social relationship where concepts such as empathy, respect, fairness, and loyalty can be explored and refined. Conversely low quality friendships are marked by inequality and often involve bullying and coercion which are substantial barriers to moral development.
Practices to Foster Morality
While morality is complex there are some fundamental practices parents and caregivers can implement to foster its development in children and adolescents.
Practice authoritative parenting. This is underpinned by responding warmly and respectfully to children to establish and maintain a close relationship. Setting clear standards and expectations based on level of maturity helps foster the development of conscience. Moving toward responsibility for your child to self-regulate his/her personal and social behavior is an important skill in morality. Using reasoning and dialogue when guiding and directing on moral issues strengthens moral reasoning but do keep in mind that children are bound by their stage of cognitive development. Another critical component of positive parenting is modeling for your child. As you encounter and apply your own moral convictions your child will have the opportunity to see and hear from you how and why you resolved the situation as you did. It is okay though not to share all moral dilemmas you face with your children, some matters are very sensitive and private or you may wish to do so when your child matures.
See and provide authentic opportunities for practice. Sometimes it’s quite hard, even for adults, to think clearly and make the best moral decisions in the heat of the moment; so books, movies/TV shows, or situations your child observes—but do not involve him/her directly—can be used to explore and discuss the moral issue and how to respond. Daily life brings real situations you can expand upon for lessons in morality, from a preschooler struggling with sharing, to middle childhood where cliques are just forming, to the adolescent facing peer pressure or recognizing social injustice in their own community. When your child seems ready, consider opening up more opportunities by talking about morality related to events, such as the examples shared in the introduction, as well as connecting with others of different backgrounds or volunteering for those less fortunate. These opportunities are especially good for building empathy and altruism.
Empower through positive relationships with others. Through such relationships with other adults who demonstrate high moral functioning, children have good role models to both observe and dialogue about moral reasoning and decisions, as well as get meaningful and valued feedback. As mentioned, high-quality friendships with peers are important to children’s moral development. Expect and learn to be okay with low to moderate conflict as this is normal and necessary for practice in facing and resolving moral dilemmas. However, if your child is in a friendship, which is always in conflict and causing them to be continuously upset and distressed, it is vital you support and help your child move out of such a relationship and establish more healthy friendships. Do be prepared that when they are young, this is much easier than when they are teens, where you can expect to have pushback because worries about peer acceptance peak in adolescence. When children feel genuinely valued, they in turn are more likely to value themselves and have higher self-esteem; this in turn leads to a firmer belief that others are of value too. It’s this positive cycle which contributes to making good moral judgements.
Morality in children is related to social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral competence, knowledge, and experience that develops; and is needed to apply morals to progressively complex and multifaceted social situations. Much of the morality development in children is based on their growing awareness that others can hold a set of moral beliefs different from their own, that people act on their own set of moral beliefs, and that they can as well. Fostering morality in children is a major task for parents that begins in infancy and continues through adolescence. The greatest potential for commendable morality resides in a close positive parent-child relationship, and as this is something both value, our children have an excellent chance of becoming adults with strong moral values and principles.
Berkowitz, M.W., & Grych, J.H. (1998). Fostering goodness: Teaching parents to facilitate children's moral development. Journal of Moral Education, 27(3), 371-391.
Fleming, J.S. (2006). Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Others on Moral Development. University of Warkwick.
Killen, M., & Smetana, J.G. (2015). Origins and development of morality. Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, 701-749.
Lilla Dale McManis, M.Ed., Ph.D., uses her training and experience as a psychologist, child developmentalist, educator, and parent to promote positive child outcomes through informed and effective parenting. Dr. McManis is President & CEO of Parent in the Know, a parenting-role and child social-emotional assessment and reporting service. She believes strongly in translating parenting research into meaningful practice. Read more about Dr. McManis at her website.
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