The Family Influence on Children's Morals

By Helen Anderson
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The famed developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, believed that in the formation of children's morals no outside influence is greater than that of the family. Through punishment, reinforcement and both direct and indirect teaching, families instill morals in children, and help them to develop beliefs that reflect the values of their culture. Although families' contributions to children's moral development is broad, there are particular ways in which morals are most effectively conveyed and learned.


The notion of what is fair is one of the central moral lessons that children learn in the family context. Families set boundaries on the distribution of resources, such as food and living spaces, and allow members different privileges based on age, gender and employment. The way in which a family determines what is fair affects children's development of ideas about rights and entitlements, and also influences their notions of sharing, reciprocity and respect.


Families establish rules for right and wrong behavior, which are maintained through positive reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement is the reward for good behavior, and helps children learn that certain actions are encouraged above others. Punishment, by contrast, helps to deter children from engaging in bad behaviors, and from an early age helps children to understand that actions have consequences. Dr. Jean Piaget describes that through their exposure to rewards and punishment, children develop an internal system of justice that they use assess the world and their immediate environs. This internal system additionally helps children to make decisions about how to act, as they begin to consider the outcomes of their own behavior.

Social Roles

In the family environment, children come to consider their actions not only in terms of justice, but also in terms of emotional needs. Clinical psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg is famous for his elaboration of children's moral development. He maintains that children learn the value of social support from their families, and develop motivations based on kindness, generosity and empathy, rather than on only personal needs and desires. Kohlberg additionally explains that by learning to care for the interests and well-being of their family, children develop concern for society as a whole.

Personal Balance

Through understanding principles of fairness, justice and social responsibilities, children learn to find a balance between their own needs and wants and the interests of the greater social environment. In their 1998 article on moral development, professors Arthur Mones and Erinn Haswell describe that children are brought into a "family culture" that emphasizes finding moderation between the individual and a greater sense of connectedness. By placing limits on their own individual desires, children benefit from a greater sense of love, security and shared identity. At the same time, this connectedness helps children to refine their own moral system by providing them with a reference for understanding right and wrong.

About the Author

Helen Anderson has been writing and editing professionally since 2007. Her work has appeared in scholarly and popular publications, such as "Foreign Affairs" and "The New York Times." Anderson holds a master's degree in public health from Columbia University, where she is currently completing a Ph.D.