Psychologists use stages of child development to create benchmarks for growth and maturity. Several distinct theories of development have emerged, but one of the more comprehensive theories of development was created by Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg based his concept of moral child development off of Jean Piaget's four stages of cognitive development. Kohlberg used Piaget's landmark cognitive development theory to create a more comprehensive notion of cognitive child development that includes six stages instead of Piaget's initial four.
Obedience and Punishment
The first two stages of development occur in the first two years of a child's life. In the first stage, the child begins to understand that there are rules established by more powerful people (adults) that must be followed or else a punishment will be issued. The child hasn't developed a sense of moral right and wrong. Instead, "wrong" is defined as avoiding negative consequences because they are undesirable.
By stage two, the child begins to realize that each individual person will make decisions to serve his individual interests. The child realizes that not everyone thinks the same way about good choices and bad choices. The child also starts to reevaluate the idea of punishment. In stage one, punishment meant that an action was wrong. In stage two, the child realizes that punishment is more like a risk than a definitive statement about the morality of an action. At this stage, children do not see themselves as part of a group or society. Piaget's theory referred to this belief as egocentrism.
In the third stage, children begin to develop a sense of good acts being desirable in and of themselves instead of desirable purely for the sake of avoiding punishment. Children begin to develop empathy and compassion for other people, and decisions now involve the impact on other people. Piaget also marked this stage around age 8 and noted that at this age children want to be helpful in their families. Identity as part of a group or society begin to emerge.
In stage four, children begin to strongly associate with the society at large and begin to consider the effects of their actions on a larger scale. Children develop a sense of duty to one's community or country. Good things are good because they support the well-being of the society instead of because they are good because they avoid punishment or are moral. Children can see the meaning behind laws and moral codes. Piaget believed these complex reasoning abilities began development at age 11.
Society and the Individual
Stage five is largely a reevaluation of the child's relationship with society. The child acknowledges that what is right for society is not always right for the individual. Children in this stage begin to assess their individual values and attempt to evaluate their world in respect to which of their values are reflected and which are not. Kohlberg believed that not all people will reach this stage, but that if they do, it will most likely occur after age 16. Piaget believed that all developmental processes were established and complete by age 16.
Kohlberg's final stage is the stage in which the child (really a young adult by this point) begins to determine which principles and values are universal regardless of circumstance. They understand and prioritize abstract concepts such as human dignity or justice. Kohlberg frequently reevaluated the viability of the sixth stage because so few adults had firmly achieved it. Kohlberg eventually settled on stage six a theoretical stage only.