Right and wrong pictured by 6 year-old Jack from Silverstone Infant School Copyrighted image Credit: OU

We all hope that as children grow up, they will develop a clear understanding of the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But what factors are involved in children’s development of a sense of morality? And what changes do children go through in their behaviour and thinking when faced with moral dilemmas?

It is intuitively appealing to see parents as the main influence on children’s moral development. But are children’s beliefs about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ really dependent on how they are brought up? The idea that children learn moral values simply through being punished for misbehaviour is certainly problematic. Of course, children’s misbehaviour sometimes does have to be disciplined through immediate negative consequences, especially when the safety of others or of the children themselves is threatened.

However, relying on frequent punishments (e.g., shouting, smacking) to encourage the long-term development of positive moral behaviour is unlikely to be effective. In fact, research evidence shows that parents’ use of physical punishment may be related to greater levels of aggression by young children towards their peers. Children are more likely to learn positive moral values from their parents if they are helped to understand those values through explanations.

Many researchers have focused on how children’s behaviour is shaped by their observations of role-models in the world around them, including peers, figures in the media, and other people besides their parents. In fact, researchers have often demonstrated that other people’s positive and negative behaviours can be imitated by children. There is good evidence that children’s prosocial behaviour (e.g., sharing, helping, caring) can be increased by observing models who show such behaviours themselves.

In a similar way, seeing others behave in antisocial ways could potentially encourage negative behaviours. In one famous series of experiments in the 1960s, for example, Albert Bandura demonstrated that children who observed an adult behaving aggressively towards an inflatable toy doll were more likely to reproduce that aggressive behaviour themselves. This link between what you see around you and what you do yourself underpins many of the concerns people have about violence on television, although this remains a controversial topic in both public and academic debate.

If children do learn patterns of moral behaviour from others, is it reasonable to assume that the way they think about moral situations is also influenced by social factors? Some evidence for this is found in cross-cultural studies of children’s reasoning about moral dilemmas.

For example, imagine that a man is about to catch a train to get to his best friend’s wedding, where he is due to serve as best man. But in the train station, his wallet and train ticket are stolen. He then sees the opportunity to steal a ticket from another person. Should he steal the ticket to get to his friend’s wedding? A research study by Joan Miller and David Bersoff in 1992 showed that when faced with these kinds of dilemmas, Indians and Americans (aged 8, 12, and 21 years) differed in their choices. An average of 84% of Indians chose to meet their social obligations (e.g., to serve as best man at the wedding) even if it meant breaking a principle of justice (e.g., by stealing). But only 39% of Americans tended to resolve the dilemmas in this way. This kind of evidence strongly suggests that children’s beliefs about morality are at least partly shaped by the value systems of the society in which they are brought up.

Despite this evidence that children’s moral sense develops by watching others and ‘internalizing’ the values and norms they perceive in the world around them, many researchers have placed more emphasis on systematic changes in children’s thinking as they get older.

One major theory of children’s moral development was put forward in the first half of the twentieth century by the famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. He used various methods to make sense of the way children think about rules, such as asking children to make moral judgements about simple scenarios, and interviewing children about the rules of their games (e.g., marbles).

Piaget suggested that between approximately 5 and 10 years of age, children see rules as rigid and unalterable, set by external sources such as adults. Also, Piaget argued that young children’s difficulties with understanding other people’s intentions and perspectives meant that they would focus more on objective outcomes than on subjective motives. For example, when comparing a story character who breaks one cup while stealing some jam with a story character who accidentally breaks fifteen cups on his way to dinner, young children tended to view the second character as naughtier, because he broke more cups.

Older children were seen by Piaget as better able to appreciate how people have different perspectives on the world. Therefore, he believed that they could see how cooperation and negotiation are important in setting and changing rules. Older children were also thought to have a greater understanding of others’ intentions. So, in the scenarios described above, they tended to judge the child who broke one cup as naughtier because of his ‘bad’ motive.

 
Right and wrong pictured by 6 year-old Jack from Silverstone Infant School Copyrighted image Credit: OU

Building on this theory, another psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg conducted detailed interviews about situations involving complex moral choices. For example, children, adolescents, and adults were asked to decide if a man who cannot afford to pay for some overpriced medicine to save his dying wife should break into the pharmacy to steal the drug. Kohlberg’s interest was not so much in the actual choices selected by a person, but rather in the ways in which the person reasoned about the dilemma.

 

Kohlberg argued that at early stages of moral development there is a focus on punishment and rewards (e.g., ‘you shouldn’t steal because you’ll be caught and sent to jail’, or ‘if you let your wife die, you’ll get in trouble’). But as children grow older, they enter stages where they emphasize social harmony and law and order (e.g., ‘no one will think you’re bad if you steal the drug’, or ‘even if his wife is dying, you still have to obey the law’). Some individuals, according to Kohlberg, reach the highest levels of moral reasoning and consider universal, ethical principles that transcend law.

However, we can’t simply explain changes in children’s thinking about moral dilemmas in terms of increased reasoning skills as children get older. We have already seen an example of cultural differences in how children respond to moral dilemmas, and some researchers have even argued that boys and girls are brought up to have different moral orientations.

Of course, we should be cautious about making big generalizations about cultural or gender differences, but these arguments highlight the point that the norms and values that are prominent in a child’s life need to be considered alongside any changes in the child’s cognitive development. Similarly, research has made it clear that in addition to young children’s growing reasoning skills, their experiences within their family and with their friends can help them gain an insight into the important distinction between moral rules (e.g., not hitting others) and social conventions (e.g., table manners).

In fact, research over the last few decades has shown that making sense of children’s moral development can sometimes be very hard precisely because so many factors are involved. Often, children’s actions don’t fall neatly in line with their thinking, because their ability to regulate their own behaviour is limited at younger ages. In other words, children have to have the self-control to stop themselves from doing something forbidden, as well as an understanding of the rule itself.

Also, feelings such as guilt, sympathy, shame, and pity can all play a role in everyday situations involving moral choices, and research shows that children’s experience and understanding of these complex emotions changes as they get older.

Thus, when children are deciding whether or not to tell a lie, obey a dubious instruction, or help someone in distress, their behaviour will depend not just on adults’ instructions and prohibitions, nor simply on their ability to reason about the rules involved. It will also relate to their ability to control their own behaviour, their memories of what happened to them and to others in the past, and the way the situation is making them feel.

Research over the last 70 years has shown us that the task of describing children’s morality is a challenging one. By talking to children, observing their natural behaviours, and analyzing their responses to moral dilemmas, psychologists have demonstrated that a wide variety of social, cognitive, and emotional factors are involved in children’s moral development. The challenge facing us now is to work out exactly how these factors all fit together as children grow up.

Further Reading
Culture and moral judgement: How are conflicts between justice and interpersonal responsibilities resolved?
from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, pages 541-554
JM Miller, & DM Bersoff 1992

Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models
from Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, pages 575-582
A Bandura, D Ross, D, & SA Ross 1961

Helping Others and Moral Development
Chapter 8 of Understanding Children's Development
PK Smith, H Cowie, & M Blades; Published by Blackwell.