Children grow from morally ignorant babies to children who know right from wrong. The moral development of children is a complex process that involves experiences, cognitive processes and emotional growth. Gradually, children move from acting out of fear of punishment to truly thinking through the intents and consequences of their actions.
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Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development
Lawrence Kohlberg developed his theory of moral development as a model of how children and adults develop morality and conscience. His theory includes three levels with two stages each. The first stage that young children occupy is the pre-conventional level. During this stage of development, young school-aged children learn to obey because the consequence of disobeying is unpleasant. Their actions are founded in the avoidance of punishment. Gradually, young children will begin to choose good behaviour to receive social rewards. According to textbook author Laura E. Berk, children in the pre-conventional stage of moral dilemma are unable to comprehend people's intentions, and they judge all behaviour by consequences.
The psychoanalytic theory of moral development emphasises the role of guilt in school-aged children. During early childhood the expression of empathy-based guilt develops in children. Young school-aged children begin to realise they can hurt people and feel bad when they do so. Encyclopedia.com describes guilt as "major determinant of action in situations of moral conflict or temptation." Early childhood experiences with punishment likely influence the formation of guilt. Although children in the early childhood years may not always behave in accordance to what will induce guilt, they are able to recognise guilt feelings after they commit a wrong action.
Social Learning Theory
The social learning theory of moral development does not emphasise a particular time line of morality development. Morality is instead learnt through reinforcement and modelling. North Carolina State University recommends that adults model caring and thoughtful behaviour so young, impressionable children will learn pro-social behaviour. Author Laura E. Berk reports children exhibit more responsiveness when they have attentive and warm caregivers. Highly punitive parents, however, may compromise a child's ability to internalise moral rules. By middle childhood most children have adopted rules of conduct.
The cognitive-development perspective describes the thinking processes that develop morality in children. By the early school-aged years children are making moral judgments. They actively think about the ideals of right and wrong and apply those concepts to their own behaviour. Social justice and rights of the individual become topics children contemplate. Children are capable of distinguishing between social conventions and matters of personal choice. Children begin to understand the contexts of their actions and the moral implications. Intent becomes more important.
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