For any parent, raising a child is a lot of work. You have to feed them, clothe them, get them to school, keep them occupied when they get home from school. The list of responsibilities goes on! Amidst all this, like any good parent, you are trying to help them become good, upstanding members of society. However, at times it seems a sisyphean task to help your kids understand the “whys” and consequences of their actions. As such, we set boundaries, rules, and limits that help to guide children in the way they should act. By they time they are grown and leaving for college, though, most of those rules begin to be shed. How do we get to this point of having responsible, moral children who become responsible, moral adults? All children go through a developmental process. We can think of the obvious physical development, such as learning to walk, talk, grow, etc. Another realm is their cognitive development, such as the acquisition of words in their vocabulary and their ability to learn new and abstract concepts. Another element of their psychology would be their moral development. Just as they begin to understand how letters form words and numbers can create math problems, so must they begin to understand that rules and morality exist and they also exist to serve a purpose.

Psychological Development of Children

Before diving into moral development, let’s look more broadly at a theory of psychological development created by psychologist Jean Piaget. He postulated that there exists 4 large “stages’ of psychological development children go through on their journey to adulthood. The first of these stages is the “sensorimotor” stage, from birth to about 2 years old. During this period, children are basically learning how their bodies work. First, they learn to stand, then crawl, walk, and begin to speak. They develop some fine motor skills. Note, during this period we don’t tend to ever think of the “morality” of kids- they are just figuring out their bodies and don’t have any sense of right and wrong, so we keep them in safe confines to protect them. Next, children begin the “preoperational” stage, wherein they begin to develop language, thought processes and are generally what we would call pretty narcissistic. It is in this stage that moral development begins, and is generally pretty basic. This goes on until kids are about 7 years old when they enter the “concrete operational” stage, and kids tend to get a pretty good handle on logic and consequences. They begin to exit their narcissistic world and see a little more of what happens around them. Around adolescence, the final stage Piaget postulates is the “formal operational stage” wherein kids finally get a sense on more abstract concepts. All of the stages of Piaget are reflected in our education system, with getting kids to understand basic concepts, connecting those concepts, and then the interpretation of those concepts does not really begin until junior high and high school. As such, the moral developmental stages should overlap and reflect this as well. Let’s take a look at those now.

Moral Development

For this purpose, we will use a theory of development popularized by Lawrence Kohlberg, wherein he postulates a 6-stage development of morality, grouped into three broader levels. The first level is called Pre-conventional morality, which has a self-centered approach, then the next level is called conventional morality, wherein the emphasis is on the impact of others, then finally post conventional morality, where the justifications of actions appeal to larger universal concepts. Before looking into what these stages are, let’s look at the “Heinz Dilemma” which is a hypothetical scenario Kohlberg devised as a litmus test for understanding where someone fits in this process of development. This is how the Heinz Dilemma plays out: “Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and this was much more than the Heinz could afford. Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug. Kohlberg would then ask the following questions:

  1. Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
  2. Would it change anything if Heinz did not love his wife?
  3. What if the person dying was a stranger, would it make any difference?”

(https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Heinz+Dilemma) After proposing this scenario, he would evaluate how children, and adults, responded to the questions above. Note, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, to steal or not to steal, but Kohlberg was rather concerned with how the individual responded and what sort of reasoning they appealed to. With this in mind, let’s now go through the stages of development and see how someone at different levels may approach this.

Pre-Conventional Stage 1: Obedience and punishment

This most basic level of morality appeals to law and order. Most likely, kids would answer they would not steal because stealing is against the rules and therefore they would be punished and that would be bad. Not necessarily “wrong” per se, but there is an individual fear of punishment at play that prohibits the individual from stealing the medication. Perhaps a child at this level might say to steal the drug only if they feared punishment from someone else for not stealing the drug, but that is not in the scenario as it is laid out.

Pre-Conventional Stage 2: Individualism and exchange

At this level, there begins to be somewhat of a consideration of what is needed by individuals. Usually, at this level, kids might say it is bad to steal because it inflicts punishment on the stealer and that is bad for them. Not necessarily appealing to the rule itself or punishment itself, but avoiding negative utility towards the person completing the action. Another response would be to steal because it is worse for Heinz if he does not steal and he needs to do what is best for him. The commonality between stage 1 and 2 is that this level is more individualistic.

Conventional Stage 3: Interpersonal relationships

By stage 3, consideration of others begins to emerge. The emphasis is on being nice and do what is viewed as good by their peers. What is right is what is good for those around you. Answering these questions at this stage can cause some struggle since is it more moral to be good and nice to the wife or good and nice to the chemist who owns the drug? Both could be good for the one person but bad for the other.

Conventional Stage 4: Maintaining social order

Stage 4 takes the outward thinking of stage 3 and expands it to society as a whole. What is good for society is what is right. It has a practical approach towards what should be right and wrong for everyone, but it does not yet appeal to an abstract sense of what is right and wrong. Therefore, stealing the drug could be seen as either good for society because the chemist is evil or it is bad because you are breaking down law and order and that could have a ripple effect leading to the degradation of social order.

Post-Conventional Stage 5: Social contracts and individual rights

At this level, external thinking begins to account for what is right and wrong at a more metaphoric level. Morality should consider the rights of individuals and duties we all have to take care of each other. This level is usually not really attained until adolescence, if ever, and requires some more abstract thought. Answers to the question may say that the chemist is infringing on the rights of Heinz’s wife, while others may say Heinz’s theft infringes on the rights of the chemist. Again, a lot of confliction may exist here.

Post-Conventional Stage 6: Universal ethical principals

Sometimes considered more of a theoretical stage, this final level appeals to universal concepts of right and wrong. Obviously, there can be some problematic concepts that differ as to what is considered universally right and wrong. An appeal to this stage of morality might consider what the chemist is doing as wrong and therefore unjust, and therefore the laws protecting the chemist are unjust as well, and the morally correct thing to do is steal the drug. The converse argument could be that stealing is universally wrong in all cases and that the laws reflect this truth. Basically, at this point there begins a hierarchy of morality that occurs and what is “universally” true can be up for debate in terms of where it fits.

Understanding this in a modern context

So why do I emphasize this development so much? I believe that in our modern context we are running into issues with our children where their developmental level and their exposure to content can be conflicting. As adults, we grapple with moral grey areas all the time and have some more developed sense of right and wrong. We know the history behind racial slurs and why we should not use them. However, children might hear these words and know that they get punished for them. They begin to understand that some words are off limits, but may not understand why that word is off limits outside of the fact that it affects them negatively to do so (this gets a level 1 thinking). Older children and younger adolescents have an almost narcissistic sense of right and wrong, looking out for themselves individual and may not care what you think is right and wrong. For children being exposed to so many issues so young, even just having an eye on politics, they may not understand the nuances that come with the territory. This becomes an issue when we try to speak to them assuming they are at a higher level of moral development than they are. The vocabulary they use makes us think they are older and with it, but really they have just been exposed to so much more. The young child using the racial slur knows it just riles someone up, they are not intending to be racist. It is our job as parents and authority figures to bring them along and see what the consequences of their actions are, and provide more justification as they get older. To this area, I wish to leave one last piece of advice, and that is to steer away from the “because I said so” justification as children grow up. For young children (under 4), this is can be ok as they are not going to have much of a grasp on the concept on justifications for rules other than the infliction of punishment on them. They are at Level 1 morality and this is okay due to their age! But as they get older, “because I said so” increasingly puts distance between you and your child and they will learn to lose trust and respect in you. They understand that there should be reasons behind your actions, so let them in on it. If they ask why a rule is in place, this is a space where they are attempting to grow in their moral development, so please do not shunt it! Let them know your justification in simple and easy to understand terms relevant to their developmental age. For kids 4-10, talking about how it impacts others can be helpful. For tweens on up, feel free to engage in some more abstract concepts of right and wrong. Psychological development in children affects their understanding of morality, and it is important that we meet them where they are.

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