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Moral Development in Childhood

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Moral Development in Childhood

How do we determine what behaviour is moral? When answering this question, psychologists focus not only on the behaviour itself but also on the underlying reasoning. Our reasoning is perhaps more important than behaviour for understanding a complex concept like morality.

Moral Development in Childhood, a scale representing moral reasoning, StudySmarterMoral reasoning, flatison.com

Moral development in early childhood definition

Psychologists have investigated for decades whether children understand morality. To behave morally, we need to make judgements about what is "right" and "wrong". It's been theorised that children start from a very basic and rigid understanding of morality and gradually develop an ability to make more sophisticated moral judgements.

Definition of morality and moral reasoning

Morality is about making the distinction between "good" and "bad" behaviour. Moral reasoning refers to the process of deciding what is just, fair, and right to do in a situation.

Social and moral development in early childhood

Jean Piaget was one of the earliest psychologists investigating moral development in early childhood. He analysed children's interpretation of morality through a social-emotional/cognitive perspective to understand the origin of adult morality.

He presented children with social dilemmas (like the trolley problem) to investigate how children make moral judgements. Then, he analysed their answers.

Piaget's theory of moral development in childhood

Based on his observations, Piaget argued that children in the early stages of cognitive development understand morality in terms of fixed rules. They consider all actions against the rules immoral, even if committed with good intentions or by accident. Later, when children begin to consider the perspectives of others, they start to show more flexibility in their understanding of rules and can appreciate the role of intentions.

Kohlberg's theory of moral development in childhood

Influenced by earlier work by Piaget, American psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg conducted studies that tested children's moral reasoning in response to moral dilemmas.

Kohlberg's moral development stages

Based on Kohlberg's observations of how boys at different levels of cognitive development make moral judgements, Kohlberg proposed three stages of moral reasoning, each consisting of two levels.

Stage 1 - Pre-conventional moral reasoning

Children get their knowledge about what is "right" and "wrong" from their environment. Their reasoning is egocentric, meaning that they mainly consider the consequences for them.

Level 1 - Obedience and punishment orientation

  • At this level, children are motivated by avoiding punishment. They understand that actions bear consequences but might not understand why.

Moral Development in Childhood, a mother shouting at her daughter, StudySmarterChildren start developing an understanding of what behaviour is bad and good based on rewards and punishment, freepik.com

Level 2 - Instrumental purpose orientation

  • Again, children are motivated by their self-interest, but they start focusing on actions that lead to the most rewarding outcome.

Stage 2 - Conventional moral reasoning

We conform to social rules to maintain positive social relationships, systems and a positive image of ourselves in the social system.

Level 3 - Good boy/girl orientation

  • Actions are motivated by social approval and positive social relationships. Judgements shift from self-interest to being good to others to be perceived as "good" people.

Level 4 - Law and order orientation

  • This stage of morality involves upholding the laws and rules of society. At this level, individuals behave in line with regulations to maintain social order.

Adhering to traffic laws is a moral duty because traffic laws help us maintain order on the roads and avoid accidents.

Stage 3 - Post-conventional moral reasoning

The last stage, which not everyone reaches, focuses on internal moral principles. These reflect universal ethical principles, such as human rights. Individuals recognise that social rules are helpful but also realise that they are arbitrary and can be unjust.

Level 5 - Social contract orientation

  • Laws are seen more flexibly - as social contracts instead of objective and fixed rules. At this level, individuals recognise that we should change laws that are not in the majority's best interest or violate human rights.

Level 6 - Universal ethical principle orientation

  • Our conscience and internal moral principles determine behaviour. Moral reasoning involves looking at a problem from everyone's perspective, even the minorities in society and recognising unjust laws.

Activities for testing moral development in early childhood

Kohlberg (1968) presented 75 American boys with moral dilemmas to test moral reasoning in children. The study began when participants were in their teenage years (10 to 16) and lasted for 12 years. Each year, the participants were interviewed about social dilemmas.

An example of a social dilemma they were presented with was the Heinz dilemma.

"A woman was on her deathbed. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000, which is half of what it cost.

He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?" - Kohlberg (1981)

According to Kohlberg's study, participants answered in a way consistent with one level of moral development. With age, as their moral reasoning developed, their approach to answering the dilemmas also changed in how Kohlerg's theory described.

Examples of moral reasoning at different stages of moral development in childhood

At stage 1, the participants would consider the problem through the lens of rewards and punishment so they could give answers like:

Heinz shouldn't have broken in because now he will be punished and put in prison.

At stage 2, participants would approach the answer with a focus on other people's approval or disapproval of the law.

Moral Development in Childhood, stage four of moral reasoning, StudySmarterAt level 4 of moral reasoning, people believe that rules are fixed and need to be upheld, freepik.com

Heinz should have broken in because a good husband would steal to save his wife.

OR

Heinz shouldn't have broken in because it is against the law to steal.

At stage 3, participants would focus on their internal moral principles.

Heinz should have broken in because the value of human life is more important than breaking the law to steal.

Criticism of Kohlberg's theory

Some critics of Kohlberg's theory have argued that the way he constructed stages of moral development reflects a traditionally masculine perspective and Western values.

  • In some countries, individual rights are not always more important than the good of society.
  • We associate empathy and emotions with being feminine. Prioritising how a scenario might impact people close to you or how it might impact you emotionally is considered lower-level reasoning than conforming to making objective judgements based on law or universal values.

According to Kolberg's theory, once we develop beyond a stage, we should no longer use it to make moral judgments. However, it can be argued that we tend to reason on different levels depending on the context we are in, in some situations we might prioritise law while in others rewards and consequences.

Are there cultural differences in morality?

Piaget proposed that young children judge lying as immoral if the lie is significantly different from reality and they think it results in punishment. At the age of 11, children start to consider the intentions behind lying. Kohlberg proposed a similar trajectory of how moral reasoning of lying develops. However, researchers soon noticed that children's evaluations of lying can be more complex even at an early age and can differ depending on context. Sweetser (1987) proposed a three-component model of lying.

According to Sweetser, how lying is perceived depends on:

  • Whether the statement reflects the truth
  • Intentions of the speaker
  • Whether the person believes it
  • Socio-cultural context - how it relates to cultural norms.

The majority of research on morality and truth-telling was conducted with children socialised in Western, individualistic countries. Lee and colleagues (1997) aimed to investigate children's evaluations of lying cross-culturally. Since collectivist and individualistic cultures can focus on different values concerning modesty and individual achievement, we can expect some differences in evaluating lies about your achievements or good behaviours.

Lee et al. (1997) - Chinese and Canadian children's evaluations of lying and truth-telling

Lee and colleagues investigated if Chinese and Canadian children would judge lying and truth-telling differently.

Research Design

Canadian and Chinese children aged 7, 9 and 11 participated in this lab experiment. The researchers told them a story about a child that had done something adults disapproved of (antisocial behaviour) or something they valued (prosocial behaviour). There were four conditions children rated: 1) the morality of a child lying about antisocial behaviour, 2) telling the truth (admitting to) antisocial behaviour, 3) lying about prosocial behaviour or 4) telling the truth about prosocial behaviour. Participants rated this behaviour on a scale from -3 (very naughty) to 3 (very good).

Findings

  • When evaluating the morality of admitting to prosocial behaviour, Canadian children gave a similar rating across all ages, while ratings of Chinese children decreased with age. Older Chinese children tended to rate telling the truth about prosocial behaviours as less positive.
  • Canadian children rated lying about prosocial behaviour negatively, but with age, their ratings became less negative. Younger Chinese children rated lying about prosocial behaviour negatively, but older Chinese children gave positive ratings in this condition.
  • Admitting to antisocial behaviour was rated positively by children from both cultures.
  • Lying about antisocial behaviour was rated negatively by both cultures.

Conclusion

Culture affected how children evaluated lying and truth-telling in the context of prosocial behaviours. It can be concluded that cultural norms and values influence moral judgements.

Moral Development in Childhood - Key takeaways

  • Moral reasoning refers to the process of deciding what is just, fair and right to do in a situation.
  • Jean Piaget introduced 2 stages of moral development in childhood.
  • Kohlberg investigated the development of moral reasoning in American boys, by presenting them with moral dilemmas like the Heinz Dilemma.
  • Kohlberg proposed 3 stages of moral reasoning (pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional), each consisting of 2 levels.
  • At the pre-conventional moral reasoning stage, children are motivated by their self-interest and the potential rewards or punishments of actions.
  • At the conventional moral reasoning stage, people conform to social rules either to gain social approval or to maintain social order.
  • At the post-conventional stage, people are guided by their internal ethical principles, recognise that laws are arbitrary and unjust laws should be changed.
  • Kohlberg's theory has been criticised for representing traditionally masculine and Western values and proposing that reasoning based on individual rights, justice and objectivity is more advanced than prioritising the good of the society, empathy or the emotional impact of behaviours.
  • Lee et al. (1997) found cross-cultural differences in children's evaluations of lying and truth-telling about prosocial behaviour.

Frequently Asked Questions about Moral Development in Childhood

Moral development is important because our sense of morality guides our behaviours. Moral individuals consider how their actions impact society and can act in a way that benefits instead of harming society. 

Moral development refers to the change in how we make moral judgements as we develop. Kohlberg proposed that moral reasoning starts with an egocentric perspective. As we develop, we begin to understand the value of social contracts. In the last stage, we begin to reason more flexibly, abstractly and consider multiple perspectives in our reasoning. 

Kohlberg's six levels of moral reasoning are:

1. Obedience and punishment orientation

2. Instrumental purpose orientation

3. Good boy/girl orientation

4. Law and order orientation

5. Social contract orientation

6. Universal ethical principle orientation

Piaget was the first psychologist to introduce two stages of moral development. Kohlberg built on his work and proposed three stages of moral development, each consisting of two levels.

Moral development refers to how our understanding of what are "right" and "wrong" actions changes as we develop.

Final Moral Development in Childhood Quiz

Question

What is morality?

Show answer

Answer

Morality refers to an understanding of what is "good" and "bad" behaviour.

Show question

Question

What is moral reasoning?

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Answer

Moral reasoning refers to the process of deciding what is just, fair and right to do in a situation. 

Show question

Question

Why is moral development important in early childhood? 


Show answer

Answer

Moral development is important because our sense of morality guides our behaviours. Moral individuals consider how their actions impact society and can act in a way that benefits instead of harming society. 

Show question

Question

How does morality develop in childhood according to Kohlberg's theory?

Show answer

Answer

Kohlberg proposed that moral reasoning starts with judging behaviours from an egocentric perspective, as we develop we begin to understand the value of social contracts, while in the last stage we start to reason more flexibly, abstractly and consider multiple perspectives in our reasoning.  

Show question

Question

Outline Piaget's theory of moral development in childhood.

Show answer

Answer

Piaget argued that children in the early stages of cognitive development understand morality in terms of fixed rules. They consider all actions, which are against the rules to be immoral, even if committed with good intentions or by accident. 


Later, when children begin to consider the perspectives of others they start to show more flexibility in their understanding of rules and can appreciate the role of intentions. 

Show question

Question

Outline the first stage of moral reasoning proposed by Kohlberg.

Show answer

Answer

Pre-conventional moral reasoning -  children get their knowledge about what is "right" and "wrong" from their environment. Their reasoning is egocentric, they mainly consider what will the consequences of the action be for them.

Show question

Question

What are the two levels that the first stage of moral reasoning consists of, according to Kohlberg's theory?

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Answer

Level 1 - Obedience and punishment orientation

  • At this level children are motivated by avoiding punishment. 

  Level 2 - Instrumental purpose orientation (Rewards)

  • Children start focusing on what actions will lead to the most rewarding outcome for them. 

Show question

Question

Outline the second stage of moral reasoning proposed by Kohlberg and the levels it consists of.

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Answer

We conform to social rules to maintain positive social relationships, systems and a positive image of ourselves in the social system. 


Stage 2 consists of level 3 characterised by orientation for gaining social approval, and level 4, at which individuals focus on adherence to laws to maintain social order.

Show question

Question

Outline the third stage of moral development proposed by Kohlberg.

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Answer

Post-conventional reasoning stage - actions are guided by internal moral principles, which reflect universal ethical principles like human rights. Individuals recognise that social rules are helpful, but also realise that they are arbitrary and can be unjust. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between the second and third stages of moral reasoning according to Kohlberg?

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Answer

In the second stage, laws are viewed as fixed and rigid, individuals at that stage may want to uphold them by all means to maintain social order. In the third stage, individuals start to recognise that laws are arbitrary and although they help maintain social order, if they are unethical they should be changed.

Show question

Question

How did Piaget and Kohlberg test moral reasoning in their studies?

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Answer

Piaget and Kohlberg both used moral dilemmas like the Heinz Dilemma to test how participants make moral judgements.

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Question

Tom said that it's okay to steal if you can get away with it and escape the consequences. What stage of Kohlberg's moral development this does statement correspond to?

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Answer

Stage 1 - Tom's motives are egocentric, he only considers the consequences of stealing to himself. 

Show question

Question

What are the limitations of Kohlberg's theory of moral development?

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Answer

Kohlberg's stages of moral development reflect a traditionally masculine perspective and Western values. 

- they assume that being guided by individual rights is more important than the social good

- they assume that being guided by objective justice is more advanced than your emotions or empathy


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Question

Emma volunteers for a charity because she likes that when she shares photos of her volunteering on social media she gets a lot of likes. What stage and level of moral reasoning does this scenario represent?

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Answer

This stage represents stage 2, level 3, Emma's actions seem to be motivated by her need for approval from others.

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Question

According to Kohlberg's theory of moral development is it possible for someone who reached level 5 (Law and order orientation) of moral development to make decisions based on potential rewards and punishment?

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Answer

No, Kohlberg argued that once you pass one stage of moral development you can't go back to it when making moral judgements.

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Question

Kohlberg expanded on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. True or False.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What age bracket did Kohlberg aim to apply his stages of moral development on?

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Answer

Adults, by assessing the stages of moral development in children as they grew from 10 to 16 years of age to 22 and 28 years of age.  

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Question

What are the three levels of Kohlberg’s model of moral development? 


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Answer

Preconventional reasoning, conventional reasoning, and postconventional reasoning. 

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Question

What year did Kohlberg introduce his theory on the stages of moral development?

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Answer

1968

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Question

How many American boys did Kohlberg use in his sample?

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Answer

75

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Question

What is the age of criminal responsibility in England?

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Answer

10

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What type of study was Kohlberg's (1968) study?

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Answer

It was a cross-cultural, longitudinal study.

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Over how many years did Kohlberg present the boys with a moral dilemma?

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Answer

12 years and they were interviewed every 3 years. 

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Question

What is the Heinz Dilemma?

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Answer

In the Heinz dilemma, Heinz needs money to help pay for the treatment of his dying wife. A special drug had been developed to treat it, but it was expensive and the druggist refused to lower the extortionate price, and no bank would loan money. Heinz then decided to break into the pharmacy and steal the drug.  

Show question

Question

What are the 6 stages within the three levels in Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development?

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Answer

1. Punishment and obedience orientation

2. Self-interest   

3. Good boy/girl orientation  

4. Authority orientation 

5. Social contract orientation

6. Conscience and ethical principle orientation  

Show question

Question

What does the Punishment and Obedience Orientation (stage 1) stage define as the level of moral reasoning?

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Answer

An act is wrong because the person who did it was punished. To avoid punishment is the goal here.  

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Question

What is the stage meaning of stage 3 - Good Boy/Girl Orientation?

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Answer

An act that causes others to think positively of you is the right choice. You may receive praise for doing it, and will be known as someone who is nice/good. 

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Question

What is the stage meaning of stage 6 - Conscience and Ethical Principle Orientation?

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Answer

An act is now governed by abstract, universal concepts and justice, equality and human life are the most important things. Judgements are made on an individual basis, and laws should be more of a guideline that can be subverted when necessary.  

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Question

Kohlberg's study has issues with being gender-biased, true or false? 

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Answer

True, it is androcentric.

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Question

What study supports the model (criminals have not one through all the required stages of moral development) when it is applied to criminals?

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Answer

Kennedy and Grubin (1992) 

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Question

Outline evidence for the influence of cultural norms on moral judgements.

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Answer

Lee et al. (1997) found cross-cultural differences in children's evaluations of lying and truth-telling about prosocial behaviour.

Show question

Question

What did Lee et al. (1997) conclude from their study on lying and truthtelling?

Show answer

Answer

Culture affected how children evaluated lying and truth-telling in the context of prosocial behaviours. It can be concluded that cultural norms and values influence moral judgements.


Show question

Question

What is morality?

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Answer

Morality concerns making the distinction between "good" and "bad" behavior, while moral reasoning refers to the process of deciding what is just, fair, and right to do in a situation.

Show question

Question

What 3 things did Sweetser (1987) put forward regarding what the perception of lying depends on?

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Answer

Sweetser (1987) put forward that there are 3 things that the perception of lying depends on: 

  1. Whether the statement reflects the truth
  2. Whether the person believes it
  3. The intentions of the speaker. 

Show question

Question

What did Piaget and Kohlberg theorise regarding children lying and what they consider when lying?

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Answer

Children lie if they judge it to be significantly different from the truth/reality and if they think they will be punished. They only start to consider the intentions behind lying around 11 years old. 

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Question

Other than the 3 things proposed by Sweetser, what else does lying depend on, which Lee et al. (1997) based their research on.

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Answer

Socio-Cultural Context

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Question

What kind of study did Lee et al. (1997) conduct?

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Answer

A cross-cultural study.

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Question

What was the aim of the study by Lee et al. (1997)?

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Answer

To investigate the effect culture had on children's moral evaluations of lying and truth telling by comparing the moral judgments of Canadian and Chinese children.

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Question

What were the 3 different age groups in the study by Lee et al. (1997)?

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Answer

7, 9 and 11 year olds

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Question

Which type of experiment was it and which design was used for the IVs in the study by Lee et al. (1997)?

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Answer

The study was a laboratory experiment which had an independent measures design.  

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Question

What were the 4 IVs of the study by Lee et al. (1997)?

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Answer

  1. Social story group vs. Physical story group
  2. Pro-social story group vs. Anti-social story group
  3. Age of children
  4. Ethnicity of children


Show question

Question

What were the 2 DVs of the study by Lee et al. (1997)? 

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Answer

  1. Rating of the deed of the story's character
  2. Rating of what the character said

Show question

Question

What scale was used to measure the DVs of the study by Lee et al. (1997) and what were the options? 

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Answer

It was a 7-point rating scale and the options were:

Very very good

Very good

Good 

Neither good nor naughty

Naughty

Very naughty

Very very naughty

Show question

Question

Explain one of the differences between the results of Canadian and Chinese children's responses and how cultural norms affected this evaluation of moral judgments.

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Answer

Chinese children rated truth telling in pro-social situations more negatively than Canadian children, and rated lying in pro-social situations more positively. This shows that culture affects moral judgments since in the Chinese culture, their moral judgments are based on modesty and self-effacement.

Show question

Question

What were the main conclusions of the study by Lee et al. (1997) study based on the findings?

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Answer

  • There is a close relationship between socio-cultural practices and evaluations of moral judgments.
  • Specific cultural and social norms, the environment children socialise in, their age, and their experience within their culture all affect the development of children's moral judgments.

Show question

Question

Why isn't the study by Lee et al. (1997) generalisable?

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Answer

Since the research is only based in Canada and China, it's not truly representative of all/most cultures and cannot be generalised because Canada isn't representative of all individualistic cultures and China isn't representative of all collectivist cultures. 

Show question

Question

How did Lee et al. (1997) increase the validity of their study?

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Answer

+ During the procedure, the researchers used counterbalancing. At both the evaluation of the deed and evaluation of the statement stages, the ratings were read in the opposite order to reduce order effects. This reduced confounding variables.

+ The random allocation of participants and the matching of age and gender to the different groups also reduced confounding variables.

Show question

Question

How many levels are in Kohlber's Stages of Moral Development? 

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Answer

Three

Show question

Question

How many stages are in each level of Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development?

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Answer

Two

Show question

Question

Which is not one of the stages in the Preconventional Reasoning level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development? 

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Answer

Authority Orientation

Show question

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