Moral development involves how people grow in understanding moral issues and in making moral decisions. In early childhood, children are more often concerned about their own personal well-being when they make moral decisions. But by middle childhood (roughly 6 to 9 years of age), children begin to develop more empathetic and abstract methods of moral reasoning. The moral development of children during middle childhood helps to prepare children for the increasingly complex moral decision making of adolescence and adulthood.
Jean Piaget, one of the earliest theorists regarding the moral development of children, extensively studied the growth and interaction of children between ages 4 and 12. Out of his observations, Piaget developed a theory about how children think and feel about the rules and conventions that govern people’s interactions with other people. His theory of moral development, which he described as moral reasoning, has served as the basis for many of the theories that since have followed, including those developed by Lawrence Kohlberg, Nancy Eisenberg, Elliot Turiel, Bryan Sokol and Michael Chandler.
Lawrence Kohlberg, perhaps the most influential developmental psychologist to follow Piaget, theorized that children develop moral reasoning by learning standards and principles of behavior from parents, peers and other role models. Other theorists, such as Elliot Turiel, have reasoned that children develop ideas of right and wrong behavior separately from learning about social regulations and conventions. That is, children learn about how to follow social rules separately from learning about how to make moral decisions.
During middle childhood, most theorists agree, children begin to move from reasoning that is more concrete to reasoning that is more abstract. Children will begin to consider not only concrete concerns, such as whether a behavior harms another person, but also abstract concerns, such as whether a behavior is just or right. Sokol and Chandler have additionally theorized that children during middle childhood begin to consider the motives and reasons for the behaviors of other people, as well.
Children become increasingly empathetic and sympathetic during middle childhood. For example, they will decide that a certain behavior is wrong if it causes another person pain, even if authority figures tell them that the behavior is acceptable. In “The Development of Children,” Cynthia Lightfoot and her colleagues explain, however, that even as children develop more advanced moral reasoning, they may still “succumb to temptation if it seems they can get away with it.” That is, children’s actions may not always match their understanding of moral behavior.
Parents and caregivers can help children navigate their developing sense of morality by talking with them about moral decision making. For example, when a child makes a moral decision, primary caregivers can discuss her or his choice and respond with affirmation and encouragement. Adults and older children can also model moral behavior in their own lives, as well as explain the reasons behind specific moral decisions that they make. Effective role modeling, open discussion and affirmative feedback all help children as they grow in the area of moral decision making.