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Moral Development
• To act morally, children must have
– An understanding of “right” and “wrong”
– A conscience
• Concern about acting in a moral manner and
feeling guilt when one does not
Early Moral Judgment/Reasoning: Piaget’s Theory
• Observed children playing games (issues related
to rules, fairness)
• Also used clinical interviews to assess children’s
thinking about moral issues
• Proposed two stages in children’s moral
development (transitional period in between)
• Stage of Morality of Constraint:
– Children younger than 7 or 8 years old are
typically in this stage of moral reasoning
– Rules or laws made by authority figures
(adults) are “sacred”
• Rules/laws are always fair
• Doing the “right” thing means following the
– Actions are judged by their consequences,
not by the individual’s intentions/motives
• Ex: Child who broke more dishes is naughtier,
even though it was accidental
Later Research (post-Piaget):
• In some cases, young children (3-yearolds) can take into account a person’s
intentions in judging an act as “right” or
– Piaget underestimated young children’s ability
to judge an action based on the individual’s
intentions (rather than the consequences)
• Young children don’t treat all rules the same way
– Moral judgments: Involve issues of right and wrong,
fairness, and justice
• Exs: stealing from another person; physically hurting another
– Social-conventional judgments: Involve customs or
regulations intended to ensure social organization
(e.g., forms of greeting, table manners)
• Exs: addressing an authority figure as “Sir”; saying “please”
and “thank you”
• By age 3, children generally believe that
moral violations are more wrong than
social-conventional violations
– Ex: hitting another child or stealing another
child’s possessions is worse than not saying
“please” when asking for something
• By age 4, children generally believe that
moral violations are wrong even if adults
do not say that they are wrong
– Not true for social-conventional violations
• Piaget underestimated young children’s
ability to reason about different kinds of
Early Development of Conscience
– Conscience:
• An internal regulatory mechanism that increases the
individual’s ability to conform with standards of conduct
accepted in his/her culture
– Feelings of guilt when one violates standards
• In young children, reflects mainly parental values
• Restrains antisocial behavior and promotes compliance with
adult rules in the absence of external control
• By age 2, many toddlers start to show an
understanding of rules and begin to show
signs of distress when they violate a rule
– Sometimes try to correct mistakes or follow
rules even when no one else is present to tell
them to
Factors Influencing Conscience Development
• Discipline that emphasizes explanations is
related to children’s understanding and
acceptance of parents’ values (internalization)
• Positive parent-child relationships are also
related to children’s acceptance of parents’
values (internalization)
– Positive= High parental
responsiveness/sensitivity and
• Children may be more open to parents’ attempts to
communicate values because they have a positive
relationship with them