Moral education has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion and debate in the field of education and child psychology, especially with reports of the increase of teen suicide, crime, teen pregnancy and drug use. Growing trends tend to point to social problems in moral and social values. An understanding of premoral development and the stages of child development can help educators and parents address behavior properly and perhaps curb tendencies as a child grows and develops.
Jean Piaget, a psychologist of the 20th century, began the study on moral development, especially for children. Piaget determined that morality needed to be considered a process of development as one begins to understand social rules and expectations. Although Piaget developed the theory for moral development, it was psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in 1958 who expanded the theory of moral development and laid the groundwork for the debate on moral development. Unlike Piaget, Kohlberg’s studies proposed that attaining moral maturity would take longer and grouped moral development into six stages.
The premise of the stages of moral development hold that moral reasoning or the foundation for ethical behavior occurs in six developmental stages. Based on child development theories, a child is born without a conscience or is amoral, not moral or immoral. Learning morality comes from one’s society or environment.
Children normally go through the premoral stage around the ages of 2 to 7 years. Although the stage of moral development focuses heavily on children, it is possible for adults to function at the stage one level. One example commonly used in child development courses involves how soldiers in the Holocaust carried out orders under the threat of punishment without questioning its morality.
The premoral stage of development, also known as the preconventional stage, is considered the first stage of child development, when behavior is motivated by either pain or pleasure. The premoral stage is broken down into two substages. In substage one of the premoral stage, the child tends to avoid physical punishment by deferring to authority, especially if there is a physical retaliation, such as a spanking. The child associates a specific action with a physical consequence. The second substage of the premoral stage is in seeing justice in actions, whether good or bad.
Like any theory, Kohlberg’s theory of premoral and moral development has come under criticism. Kohlberg’s theory focuses heavily on moral thinking, but one of the critiques is that there is a difference between knowing what one should do and actual actions. Critics also point out that there is an emphasis on justice when making a choice; however, factors like caring, compassion and feelings often have an impact on decision-making or moral reasoning. There is also a stress on Western culture, which may not consider the difference between personal rights verses community. Cultures can have different outlooks, which is not accounted for in the stages of development.