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by Ron Huxley, LMFT

On the way to work one morning I witnessed a heart-warming event. A group of elementary school girls were running down the street, laughing out loud as only little girls can. At first, I thought it was just the innocent giddiness of young children. Then, I saw the girl running behind them. She was a larger girl, desperately trying to catch up, and yelling for them to stop. As I past them, I looked back in the rearview mirror to catch one last glimpse of the cruel situation. To my surprise, I saw one of the girls who had been in the front, stopped on the sidewalk, waiting for the other girl to catch up. As a parent, I wanted that to have been my child, if a similar situation every presented itself to them.

How do we teach our children about right and wrong? Where do they learn compassion, kindness, and other important morals? Are there practical ways for parents to shape their child's characters? These are some of the questions we will be looking at in the next few weeks. For now, let's take a look at the moral development of children.

The Moral Development of Children

When people talk about moral development, they are referring to their conduct and attitude towards other people in society. They look to see if you and I follow societal norms, rules, and laws. In terms of children, we are describing their ability to distinguish right from wrong.

Two noteworthy individuals, Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, studied the moral development of children. Piaget looked at how children develop moral reasoning. He found that young children have a much more primitive understanding of right and wrong behavior than do older children.

"Who's Naughtier?"

Piaget determined that younger children judge bad behavior by the amount of damage caused by a person's behavior. He would tell children a story with a moral dilemma. He would ask them to tell him "who is naughtier:" a boy who accidentally broke fifteen cups or a boy who breaks one cup trying to reach a jam jar when his mother is not around. Younger children attributed the "naughty" behavior to the boy who broke the most cups regardless of the other child's intent. This type of moral reasoning was called Objective Morality or Moral Realism.

Older children attributed bad behavior to the boy who broke only one cup because his motives where bad. This, more advanced form of moral reasoning was called Subjective Morality or Autonomous Morality. Piaget did not feel that children fully achieved this stage of moral development before the ages of twelve or thirteen.

"What's Right?"

Kohlberg carried Piaget's work into adolescence and adulthood. He also told children moral dilemma stories, but he would ask them to tell him what they thought would be the right thing to do. Their answers led him to the discovery of three levels of moral development with two stages each:

The first level is called Preconventional. During this level children are concerned with avoiding punishment (Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience) and getting one's own needs met (Stage 2: Individualism). This level and its stages fit into the framework of young children, up to the age of ten years.

The second level is called Conventional. During this level children are more concerned with living up to the expectations of others (Stage 3: Interpersonal Conformity) and want to do the right thing because it is good for the group, family, or institution (Stage 4: Social System and Conscience). This level and its stages fit children over the age of ten years and on to adulthood.

The third level is called Postconventional. During this level individuals govern their behavior by the relative values and opinions of the groups they live and interact with. Right behavior is based on a "social contract" (Stage 5: Social Contract and Individual Rights) with others and in the validity of universal moral principles (Stage 6: Universal/Ethical Principles) which may or may not agree with societies laws. Laws that agree with universal moral principles are obeyed but when those laws violate these principles, the individual follows the principles instead.

Although many people have criticized Piaget and Kohlberg about their stages of moral development as being culturally biased, the parenting questions remain: How do we teach children moral behavior? Is it already hard wired into the child's development and must parents shape and direct it?

Nature and Nurture

Robert Coles, the author of the book "The Moral Intelligence of Children," states that character or moral development is an interaction between nature and nurture. It develops as a result of parental interaction, balanced discipline styles, and a child's own choices. Children learn about right from wrong from their earliest experiences. When they need nurturing or feeding and parents fulfill that need without excessive indulgence, then children develop characters that accept rules and tolerate frustrations, later in life.

In my own book, "Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting" I discuss the two sides of discipline and the need that children have for balance between them. Too much love and a child becomes spoiled, expecting their every want and need to be met regardless of other people's wants and needs. This causes children to be stuck in those early stages of moral development based on selfish individualism. That's fine for a two-year-old, tolerable in a six-year-old, and obnoxious in a twelve-year-old or older. Too many limits and the child develop a low sense of worth and a lack of self-control. This usually results in an overly rebellious child or an unhealthy submissive one.

Achieving this balance is difficult. But it is easier to do if discipline is viewed from the vantagepoint of moral development. We are not merely punishing wrong behavior. We are shaping character. We are not simply setting limits. We are teaching how to distinguish right from wrong. It is easier to say "no" when I know that I am guiding my child's moral development and ultimately, his or her social success.

As the later stages of moral development reveal, children can make a choice not to follow society's rules or laws. Parents must accept that reality. That's part of parents' on-going moral development. It also makes what parents do now, with children, all the more important. Understanding moral development allows parents to assess their children and have a better target for their individual development. It redefines our roles as teachers and guides over the unpleasant tasks of police and judges. Hopefully, the end result is that our child will be the one who will stop and wait for someone in need, regardless of what the crowd says he or she should do.


Coles, Robert (1997). The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to raise a moral child. Random House, New York.

Huxley, Ronald (1998) Love and Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting. Singular Publishing Group, Inc. San Diego.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development. Harper and Row, New York.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. Basic Books, New York.

About the Author:

Ron Huxley, LMFT is a licensed child therapist and the author of the book, "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting." His articles have appeared in numerous online magazines and he is a regular columnist for the Recovery Journal.


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