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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  • Interesting post. I’m not a parent, but I believe that moral development is definitely needed.

  • I wish the parents who allowed their children to use offensive language on a video they made to mock a current political presidential nominee had read this post. It’s brilliant Pamela. When you said this, “Children will try to follow the example of parents who treat others with respect and help others in need,” I couldn’t help but think how people who allow the opposite are actually first being disrespectful to their own children.

    • Absolutely. The bar for some parents is set VERY low.

  • Pamela you always share interesting posts. I always learn something new from your blog. Moral development is very crucial and important for all children. Sharing your posts with friends.

  • Beth –

    My two children were so different and I had to help them differently. I wish I’d had your article then!

  • This is so interesting Pamela. I think my kids are still in the age where they don’t question authority too much, but I know that won’t last forever so it’s good to think about how to parent them as they start asserting their own independence.

  • I always learn something from your blog, Pamela. I will say that I imagine do as I say and not as I do probably doesn’t work. I have clients who want their kids to eat healthier event though they’ve made no attempt to do so themselves. And that never works. I imagine that morality is a similar story. You can instruct as much as you want, but children are still watching your own behavior.

  • Rose M Griffith

    Whew, taking me back to my college psych classes! As the Super Aunt of a four and a 2.5 year old, I’m relearning a lot about childhood development. It is entertaining to watch the 2.5 year old eyeball the four year olds ice cream with the clear thought: why don’t I have that? I want it!

    I love the when I’m 30…

  • Catarina Alexon

    Moral development is crucial for all children. If not, how can they understand what is right and what is wrong? Unfortunately children from conflict zones often lose morals. They see people dying around them all the time, watch how others pick up a weapon and kill someone. If they go throught that for years the value of a human life is lost and they can easily pick up a gun the way they have witnessed others do. From what I understand the same thing happens to children who grow up in criminal families in areas where the rule of the gun is in charge.

  • HomeJobsbyMOM

    I hope my boys grow up to being caring adults. It one of my main wishes for them.

    • It sounds like a core value. I’m sure you’re addressing it with your boys.

  • Interesting discussion Pamela – I love the way you bring forth the different theories. I also love those images and have pinned the `When I am 30`one. That one says a lot.
    I agree with most of what you said but I also think there is something within each child that makes it easier to teach them the right ways than others.

    • You’re absolutely correct Lenie. The ease or difficulty depends a great deal on the child’s temperament and learning style.

  • Phoenicia

    You.have given me a new insight to the development of children. They absorb much of what they see and hear therefore we as parents need to lead by example.

    • Thank you so much Phoenicia! I’m glad you’re enjoying the series.

  • What a thorough post, and interesting that there are so many different theories on children’s moral development. I think people often underestimate the importance of early year development, and what a huge effect it has on us as individuals in later life. Morals are as important as every other aspect of development.

    • Three’s a lot of critical research studies on early childhood development and . The early years of development set the stage for the future. And it all goes by so quickly.

  • Susan P. Cooper

    What a wonderful post. If every parent would take this to heart and work on the moral development of their children what a different world we would love in. It’s how you act when no one is watching that is the truest testament to your moral character.

  • As a teacher, I witnessed the varying degrees of morality children from many types of families developed. It was fascinating. The best case made for reading literature is to help develop empathy, but nowadays, someone is always squawking that this book or that book being against their morals. The principal of the high school I taught at really believed in character education, which helped a lot of students who needed it. When I was in elementary school, part of the curriculum was a Positive Action program. Hands down, those lessons opened my young eyes and made me a much better person in the long run.

    • I wonder what , “common core” standards would say about a positive acton program. Jer,i it would probably take the Board 5 or 6 years just to name the program!

  • Jacqueline Gum

    From what I have witnessed, this is something that gets overlooked for some reason…the moral development of our children. To give them a real understanding of right and wrong, and more importantly what makes it either way is so key, I think, to well-balanced adults that make decisions based on moral values first, and themselves second. Me? I was one of those kids that heard “because I said so” well into my 30’s! LOL Still, I think of myself as a highly moral individual)

  • Thanks for sharing. You always have amazing images. Do you see that siblings tend to have the same moral reasoning or are they often different?

    • Thank you Sabrina. As far as siblings, I haven’t come across anything that stands out in my mind,.I know there’s been research on, the order of siblings and identical twins. If I come across a study in the next part of the series I’l let you know.

  • Good post,. Makes me wish that all parents would give as much thought to their childrens’ moral development as they seem to do to their academic or sports or musical development.

    • I’m glad you like the post, Ken. Sports and school clubs are activities that support children’s moral development.