Moral Development in Childhood

Moral development involves learning to know the difference between right and wrong, which is necessary to make appropriate decisions in life. Childhood moral development is not genetic, but develops in stages 1. The development of morality is based on a child’s experiences and environment, as well as cognitive, social and emotional development.

Birth to 18 Months

According to the website, infants do not have the ability to moralize because they are entirely egocentric, which means their sense of right and wrong is based only on what applies to their feelings and their needs. For babies, aloneness and hunger are new and uncomfortable feelings, and therefore must be wrong. Being fed and cuddled feel right, and that feeling of rightness is what babies try to achieve. They perceive morality in terms of something being right because it feels right.

18 Months to 3 Years

After 18 months of age, toddlers begin to realize that others have rights and needs too, but they still haven’t grasped the concept of right and wrong. Instead, toddlers base their judgement on rules. For example, a toddler knows it is wrong to take his brother’s toys because he gets in trouble when he does so. He may not understand that hitting his friend is hurtful, but he knows it’s not right because he is punished each time he hits someone. Toddlers follow the rules to avoid being punished -- not because they fully grasp that the behavior is wrong.

3 to 7 Years

Between the ages of 3 and 7 years, children begin to internalize family values. These norms or morals are important to the child because they are important to her family. Children at this stage of moral development are beginning to think about how what they do affects those around them. They still expect adults to take charge, but instead of trying to avoid punishment, they follow rules because they want to be viewed as good. According to the Betty Hardwick Center, instead of feeling bad only when she is punished, your child feels bad because she has upset someone else. This is because her morality is becoming empathy-based.

7 to 10 Years

Around the age of 7, children begin to realize that parents and other authority figures are not perfect. According to, children at this stage of moral development understand and value fairness, and perceive morality as a social contract in which rules must be obeyed in order to be liked 3. Children of this age have a strong sense of what they should do and what they should not do.


From the age of 10 or 11 and into early adolescence, children expand their moral view and see morality as a set of social guidelines that benefit everyone. While they still value rules, children see them as negotiable. By middle adolescence, children understand that following rules is a choice they must make and that their decisions affect those around them. Adolescents no longer base morality of fear of punishment or to gain friends. While teens want to be popular, and may do what is morally wrong in their home to please their peers, they are capable of abstract moral reasoning, and know when something is right or wrong.

Encouraging Moral Development

There are several theories that speculate how and when morality develops in children. It is generally accepted, however, that children learn morality from those closest to them and are not born with a specific set of norms and values. Parents can help build strong moral values in their children by making sure they feel important and loved. This motivates a child to act in a way that will gain approval. Acknowledge and identify your child’s emotions from an early age to help her learn how to identify these feelings in others, and learn to empathize as a result. Most importantly, give praise when your child acts in a positive manner and demonstrate the kind of moral behavior and values you expect from her.