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Early Childhood Moral Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Morality is our ability to learn the difference between right or wrong and understand how to make the right choices. As with other facets of development, morality doesn't form independently from the previous areas we have been discussing. Children's experiences at home, the environment around them, and their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills influence their developing sense of right vs. wrong.

red no signBetween the ages of 2 and 5, many children start to show morally-based behaviors and beliefs. For example, Tasha may see Juan take the blocks out of Tyler's hands and say, "Juan! You're gonna get in trouble!" At this point, many young children also start to show empathy-based guilt when they break the rules. For example, if Juan from the above example sees Tyler cry because his blocks were stolen, Juan might start feeling somewhat bad that he hurt Tyler's feelings. As a younger child, however, Juan would feel badly only if he was punished for taking the blocks rather than making someone else sad.

According to Piaget, children between the ages of 5 and 10 see the world through a Heteronomous Morality. In other words, children think that authority figures such as parents and teachers have rules that young people must follow absolutely. Rules are thought of as real, unchangeable guidelines rather than evolving, negotiable, or situational. As they grow older, develop more abstract thinking, and become less self-focused, children become capable of forming more flexible rules and applying them selectively for the sake of shared objectives and a desire to co-operate.

Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg built on Piaget's work to create his theory of the Stages of Moral Understanding. According to Kohlberg, young children at this age base their morality on a punishment and obedience orientation. Much like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that young children behave morally because they fear authority and try to avoid punishment. In other words, little kids follow the rules because they don't want to get in trouble. It's too much to expect preschool-aged children to automatically "do the right thing". However, most young children can understand the difference between "good" and "bad" behavior, and this understanding provides the basis for more complicated moral thinking in the future. 

Contemporary research has provided us with additional information about how young children understand morals. Children between the ages 5 and 6 typically think in terms of distributive justice, or the idea that material goods or "stuff" should be fairly shared. In other words, everyone should get his or her exact "fair share." For example, Sally may think that it's only fair if each child gets exactly 2 cookies and the same amount of milk in their glass. Other factors, such as need or effort, are not considered. Sally wouldn't think that Susie should get an additional cookie because her lunch fell on the floor. By age 6 or 7, children begin to consider what people have earned or worked for when thinking about distributive justice. Children can also reason that some people should get more because they worked harder. For example, Jane begins to understand that Jill should earn a bigger prize because she sold more Girl Scout cookies.