Morality is an often studied subject in the field of psychology, and scientists often wonder when and how morality develops in children. Some aspects of moral development, such as apathy, are present even around birth, while other phases, such as making decisions, happen later in a child’s life. There are a few key theories that point to moral development of right and wrong in children, which just might explain a child’s behavior.
Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory is perhaps the most simple and breaks down moral development into two key stages. Between the ages of 5 and 10 years, children are directed by a “heteronomous” morality, meaning they see things in black and white, and see rules as absolute. Children often see their parents or teachers as godlike authority figures, and they must obey the rules their elders set forth; breaking the rules often lead to negative consequences. From age 10 through adolescence, children start seeing things through other people’s perspectives and use a more “autonomous” or self-directed form of morality. While children still want to follow rules, they see that they can bend the rules or negotiate with them.
Developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg expanded upon Piaget’s theory. He discerned that children first display “preconventional” moral reasoning, meaning they pick up on rules passed through society; for example, young children learn it is wrong to steal a toy from their friend. While children learn the rules, they often follow them because they want to avoid punishment. During age 10 to 12, children learn “ideal reciprocity,” which is the idea of fairness. They see things from another viewpoint and also realize how some rules are concrete, such as “thou shalt not kill,” while others are flexible, such as the idea that obedience to parents is more important to one culture than another. As a child continues to get older, he continues his realization of fairness; he becomes less selfish and begins to attend to the needs of others in his family or circle of friends.
While Piaget and Kohlberg focused more on internal concepts like a child’s emotions and cognitive understanding, Brofenbrenner centered more on social constructs and how the environment influences moral development. Family traditions, religious training, and cultural influences teach children the difference between right and wrong. Children learn how to make decisions or act based on lessons their parents teach them. For example, if a child is taught by her mother that it’s wrong to take something unless it is expressly given or paid for, she will continue to hold this way of thinking throughout her life.
Moral development is likely a balance of both internal and external factors, and it progresses throughout life. Psychology Today suggests that empathy, or the ability to understand another person’s emotions, begins at birth; empathy is one of the first steps towards moral development because it urges people to do the right thing. Young children then begin to learn rules and comprehend consequences, and the idea of “good” and “bad” is something even toddlers understand. Even as a child gains greater cognitive abilities and can “think for himself,” he will often take on the concepts of morality passed on to him through his family and the other people in his environment.