Skip to content
Education & Development

Moral behaviour

Updated Tuesday 10th January 2006

Dr Robin Banerjee explores the subject of children's moral development, and the factors that lead them to develop a sense of morals

Right and wrong pictured by 6 year-old Jack from Silverstone Infant School Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: 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 Icon Copyright: 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.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Reading and child development: The Our Story app: Want to go further? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University article icon

Education & Development 

Reading and child development: The Our Story app: Want to go further?

If you're feeling inspired, why not find out how The Open University can take your interest further?

Cognition and gender development Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Open2 team article icon

Education & Development 

Cognition and gender development

This course taster is taken from the Open University’s ‘Child Development’ course (ED209). It is an extract from one of the four course text books (Banerjee, R. (2005) ‘Gender identity and the development of gender roles’, in Ding, S. and Littleton, K. S. (eds) Children’s Personal and Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell.) © Open University 2005

Play, learning and the brain Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Education & Development 

Play, learning and the brain

This free course, Play, learning and the brain, examines the area of brain-based learning, with a particular focus on the development of the young child's brain, and is of particular relevance to those who work with young children. We begin by looking at the structure and functions of the brain, and the impact that sensory deprivation can have on these. We consider the implications of current understandings of brain development for teaching and learning, particularly in an early years setting, and finish by exploring the value of play (particularly outdoor play) in children's learning and the development of their brains.

Free course
15 hrs
Exploring children's learning Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Education & Development 

Exploring children's learning

How does a child's mind and behaviour change as they develop over time? In this free course, Exploring children's learning, four theories of child development are explored. Each theory views child development from a different perspective and all have underpinned psychological research for many years, and continue to do so today. By the end of this course you will have a good understanding of each of the theories and will probably have begun to challenge your own assumptions about how your own children, or children you know, have developed over time.

Free course
20 hrs
How the Millennium Development Goals failed the world’s poorest children Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: © Dean Bertoncelj | article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

How the Millennium Development Goals failed the world’s poorest children

As we reach the end of the period set to achieve the UN Millennium Goals, Anna Childs says the world is way-off target.


Education & Development 

Exploring babies' and young children's development and learning

What significant processes occur in infancy for development and learning? How does cultural environment influence individual development? And how do infants begin to develop their understanding of other people? On this album, international experts present their perspectives on the ways infants and young children enter the social and cultural worlds around them, and ways that children develop their skills of thinking and learning. The speakers are Professors Rudolph Schaffer, Michael Cole, Alison Garton, Vasu Reddy and Dr Suzanne Zeedyk. The interviews are introduced and contextualised by Dr Dorothy Faulkner and Professor David Messer of The Open University. The material forms part of The Open University course ED841 Understanding children's development and learning.

2 hrs

Education & Development 

Exploring teaching and learning in real and virtual worlds

What can current theories about children’s learning and development contribute to the development of new teaching and learning methods in schools? And how are new digital technologies changing the ways children think and learn? This album introduces two elements of The Open University's presence in the virtual world Second Life™ and explores the way in which virtual worlds can offer new opportunities for teaching and learning. The album also explores some of the ways that the theories of Lev Vygotsky have influenced the use of dialogue and language in the classroom and the ways in which children and teachers interact with each other. The interviews and video tracks are introduced and contextualised by Dr Kieron Sheehy of The Open University. The material forms part of The Open University course ED841 Understanding children's development and learning.

1 hr 45 mins
Killing creativity Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Artmim | article icon

Education & Development 

Killing creativity

How can you encourage children to be creative - without swamping them?

From plans to action: Executive function Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mylaphotography | article icon

Education & Development 

From plans to action: Executive function

A lot of what we do, we do without thinking about it. When we concentrate, that's exercising our executive function, as explained by this extract based on Open University Child Development course material