Moral Development in Early Childhood

Moral development is a type of development in the brain. It has to do with how you think about moral issues and what you think is right or wrong.Teaching your children, to be honest, caring and charitable builds up their inner self-esteem and promotes high evaluations of self. Moral competency is essential for children growing up with the influences of media and technology today. When your children have higher levels of moral reasoning, they think for themselves. They’re not dependent on others telling them what to do, but act in upstanding ways because they want to. One of your highest purposes as a parent is to serve as a role model for your child. Children will try to follow the example of parents who treat others with respect and help others in need.

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Moral Development In Early Childhood- Kohlberg’s Theory

A developmental psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, is best known for his research on how children develop their ability to make moral decisions. He was influenced and inspired by Jean Piaget’s stage theories of cognitive development. Their theories share common features. First, that our moral reasoning changes with our cognitive development. Secondly moral development depends on cognitive development.
Most of Piaget’s findings on moral development fit into a two-stage theory. Children younger than 10 or 11 years think about moral dilemmas one way; older children consider them differently. Kids under the age of 10 believe that parents, teachers or God have set rules children must follow. These rules are fixed, absolute and unalterable regardless of the situation.


Around ten years of age, kids begin to understand that it’s OK to change rules if everyone agrees. Rules are not sacred and absolute but are devices that people use to get along and cooperate with one another (Piaget, 1932, p. 137).

Lawrence Kohlberg

Lawrence Kohlberg developed the Moral theory of development. He was interested in the ways moral reasoning changed as children grew. He told children of different age’s a variety of stories about situational dilemmas. The most famous story was, “The Heinz Dilemma” about, Mr. Heinz, a man who lived in Europe.

You Tube

He then asked the kids specific questions to discover how they reasoned through these moral issues. After sorting through the children’s responses, Kohlberg developed three distinct levels of moral reasoning. Each level is associated with increasingly complex stages of moral development.

  • The Pre-Conventional or Pre-Moral Stage 

  • The Conventional Stage

  • The Post Conventional Stage

The three levels were then split into two stages. All together there are six stages of morality development. Children younger than 10 years of age fall are on the, “Pre-Conventional” level.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

In this video you can see children at different ages responding to the questions about Mr. Heinz. 


The Pre-Conventional Stage (Children younger than 10)

Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment

As your child first begins to develop moral thoughts, they experience what Kohlberg referred to as obedience and punishment orientation. Your child views morality as something external and assumes that all authority is correct. Within this stage of obedience, your child believes punishment proves that disobedience is always wrong. As a parent, you don’t want to let your child get away with inappropriate behaviors. However, if they always obey higher authority and receive punishment they may avoid pursuing their own individual interests. Moral development can’t take place when parent-child interactions are one-sided and authoritarian. Children can’t develop a true sense of justice when adults are strong and demanding and children feel weak and inferior. Kids know what they are and are not supposed to do, but the whole idea of why they have to obey is often not understood. Parents who insist upon complete control cut off the process of building in their children a deeper understanding of cooperative arrangements.

Stage 2: Individualism and Exchange

After your child completes their phase of believing all authority is correct, they then enter the second stage referred to as, “Individualism and Exchange”. This stage allows your child to better understand the concept that everyone has a different preference on specific topics. Each child now feels free to pursue their own interests and they now see punishment as a risk that must be avoided. Although your child now has different views on issues, they still have some sense of right action.This idea is referred to as fair exchange, which relates to the idea of “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Your child believes that before you do whatever is “wrong”, you must try to make a fair deal first.


Moral Development-Mutual Agreements

Interactions with peers promote the development of moral reasoning. . The mutual give-and-take, which occurs between friends, fosters tradeoffs of cooperation. Each child has the freedom to enter into cooperative agreements, and each must be satisfied with the agreement for it to be effective. Peer-group experiences help move children away from the idea that adult authority figures impose rules. They begin to understand morality based on principles of cooperation and mutual consent. Moral reasoning, then, develops from self-sufficiency, independence, and the need to get along with others.

Social participation in groups is another way to advance children’s level of moral reasoning. Boys and girls who are leaders and members of extracurricular groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or athletic teams tend to reason at higher and more advanced levels of moral reasoning than those who are not members of such responsible, organized groups.


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