How does a child distinguish between right and wrong? Let’s suppose Tom was told by his parents not to eat any cookies from the cookie jar, but he really wanted to have one. Tom may decide not to take a cookie because he will get into trouble. But what if he is very hungry? Would it still be wrong to have a cookie? Would disobeying the rule be acceptable in this case?
The judgment of this type of situation depends on the stage of the child’s moral development.
What is Moral Development?
Morality is a code of conduct that guides our actions and thoughts based on our background, culture, philosophy, or religious beliefs. Moral development is a gradual change in the understanding of morality.
Children’s ability to tell the difference between right and wrong is a part of their moral development process. As their understanding and behavior toward others evolve over time, they apply their knowledge to make the right decisions even when it’s inconvenient for them to do so.
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was among the first to identify that the way children think is inherently different from the way adults do. Unlike many of his predecessors, Piaget didn’t consider children to be less intelligent versions of adults. They simply have a different way of thinking.
Piaget was the first psychologist to undertake a systematic study of cognitive development. His stage theory of cognitive development explains that children’s mental abilities develop in four stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Only after having mastered each one of them, children can reach their full intellectual potential.
For Piaget, children’s moral development is closely related to their cognitive development. In other words, children are only capable of making advanced moral judgments once they become cognitively mature and see things from more than one perspective.
Piaget formulated the cognitive theory of moral development in The Moral Judgment of the Child in 1932. His theory of children’s moral development is an application of his ideas on cognitive development.
Piaget’s Moral Development Stages
According to Piaget, the basis of children’s reasoning and judgment about rules and punishment changes as they get older. Just as there are universal stages in children’s cognitive development, there are stages in their moral development.
Piaget devised experiments to study children’s perceptions of right and wrong. He would tell a story about something another child did, like break a jar of cookies, and then asked children whether they thought that action was right or wrong. He wanted to know the logic behind their moral reasoning.
Piaget was mainly interested in three aspects of children’s understanding of moral issues: rules, moral responsibility, and justice.
He found that while young children were focused on authority, with age they became increasingly autonomous and able to evaluate actions from a set of independent principles of morality.
Piaget described two stages of moral development: heteronomous morality and autonomous morality.
The stage of heteronomous morality, also known as moral realism or other-directed morality, is typical of children between the ages of 5 and 10.
Younger children’s thinking is based on the results of their actions and the way these actions affect them. The outcome is more important than the intention. A behavior is judged as either good or bad only in terms of consequences. There is no room for negotiation or compromise. Eating one cookie from the jar because a child is hungry is just as wrong as stealing all the cookies from the jar by a naughty child. Taking cookies is forbidden and therefore always wrong, regardless of the intention.
In middle childhood, children typically believe in the sanctity of rules. Rules are made by an authority figure, such as a parent or teacher. These rules must be followed and cannot be changed, they are absolute and unbreakable.
At this stage, children’s firm belief that they must follow the rules is based upon their understanding of the consequences. Not following the rules will lead to negative outcomes. Most younger children will obey the rules simply in order to avoid punishment. Even when completely alone, a child who breaks a rule—takes the forbidden cookie from the cookie jar, for example—will expect to be punished. The physical presence of an authority figure has no importance because morality is imposed from the outside.
But as they develop and mature, children move to a higher level of morality.
The stage of autonomous morality, also known as moral relativism or morality of cooperation, is typical of children from the age of 10 and continues through adolescence.
Children are now beginning to overcome the egocentrism of middle childhood. Their appreciation of morality changes as a result of their newly acquired ability to view situations from other people’s perspectives. They are, therefore, also capable of considering rules from someone else’s point of view. Moral rules are not perceived as being absolute anymore. Instead, older children realize that rules are socially agreed-upon guidelines. They are designed to benefit all the group members and are adjustable.
Older children can assess whether a rule is fair or not. Although they still know that it is important to follow the rules, they see them as complex and flexible. They are willing to negotiate and suggest rule modifications. For instance, while playing a board game, older children may want to implement their own rules or change the ones they find unfair.
Piaget believed that the most effective moral learning comes precisely from this type of group decision-making situations.
As they get older, children begin to understand that the motives behind actions are as important as consequences. Their choice to follow the rules is no longer based on the fear of negative outcomes but on a more complex moral reasoning. During this stage, children recognize that there is no absolute right or wrong and that morality depends on intentions rather than consequences.