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How Does Morality Develop in Children?



By: Marie Miguel Biography

Every parent knows that their children aren’t born with an exact moral compass that fits into culture, society, and household norms. It can be difficult to understand how your children develop morality and to understand the elements that play a role in that development. In fact, parents often disagree about the development of morality and how to undergo more teachings and ethical dilemmas. 

The culture of your town and the people that you associate with can influence the morality that your development. Every region has different expectations that contribute to the establishment of certain beliefs and ideals that can impact moral development. 

While this article includes many aspects of moral development in children, morality is a complex issue with various components. If you are interested in learning about the ways that morality changes and factors that influence these changes, as well as some of the issues surrounding the psychological perspective on morality, you should check out some of the articles about morality at BetterHelp.

The articles they offer may help you understand the development of moral behaviors in young children as well. There are several theories on the ways that morals are developed and established in children that can be interesting for a parent to discover and examine. 

Theories of Moral Development

Most experts do not fully agree on how morality is developed, but there are certainly some popular theories for the establishment of moral principles in young children. Not only that, but moral relativism refers to the idea that morals and ethics can differ depending on religion, geography, culture, and other aspects of life. 


While much of Sigmund Freud’s work is disputed, his theory of morality is related to his idea about the superego. Freud claimed that a children’s morality would develop as the kid began to consider other people’s needs and set aside their ego. This contributes to reduced selfish behavior and higher value in social structures and other people. 


Jean Piaget’s theory of moral development focuses primarily on the social perspectives of development regarding cognitive function and emotional regulation. Piaget claimed that there are different stages of moral development, and a child will make their way through those stages over time. He also believed that children established moral behaviors not only to avoid trouble or consequences but that the development was for their own sake. 


Lawrence Kohlberg further developed Piaget’s ideas in order to establish his theory of moral reasoning that is the most widely accepted today (although many experts still disagree upon some of the main tenets). Kohlberg proposed that there are 6 stages of moral development as opposed to Piaget’s two stages. These stages were developed based on the moral reasoning of studied individuals. 

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The stages in Kohlberg’s theory have three unique levels with two stages each. Each one offers development that an individual can work through to achieve higher levels, but not everyone reaches the highest stages of moral development. 

  1. Preconventional Morality

Preconventional morality is the first level of moral development and is the stage common for young children. During these stages, a child will make decisions based mostly on the expectations of adults and the potential punishments for breaking rules or expectations. 

The first stage of this level is “Obedience and Punishment” which is most common in young children, but this type of reasoning is also possible at any age. Obeying rules is not done out of inert morality, but solely to avoid consequences. Some adults may avoid certain illegal actions out of mere avoidance of legal trouble, not through true moral reasoning. 

The second stage of the preconventional morality level is “Individualism and Exchange.” At this stage, a child will develop their perspective and examine behaviors related to their own needs and desires. Reciprocity is possible at this point but is usually fairly one-dimensional as a means to selfish ends. 

  1. Conventional Morality

This level of moral development is characterized by the acceptance of social expectations and rules for good behavior. This is commonly a stage for children who are over the age of 9 and can extend through adolescents and into adulthood.

The first stage at this level, stage 3, is “Developing Good Interpersonal Relationships,” and refers to the focus on social roles and rules. During this stage, a child or other individual will conform to social expectations and understand how their actions can influence their place in the world and their relationships. 

Stage 4 is the “Maintaining Social Order” stage that is an extension of stage 3 in many ways. This is when a person will begin to consider society and all others when making certain decisions. This stage is also characterized by duty, authorial respect, and social order. 

  1. Postconventional Morality

This level of morality is when there is a better understanding of morality with abstract moral and ethical ideas. Again, there are two stages in this level. 

The first stage of this level, the 5th stage overall, is “Social Contract and Individual Rights” and involves the establishment of consideration for other ideals and values, even if the person disagrees with those beliefs.  

The sixth and final stage of moral development according to Kohlberg is the “Universal Principles” stage. This stage utilizes abstract reasoning, ideas about justice, and self-principles, even if they do not coincide with social rules and legalities. While Kohlberg believed that only a small percentage of people reach these stages, some other experts believe that many people reach them for some moral perspectives, but never do for other viewpoints. 

When Does Moral Development Begin?

Parents often want to know when their children will develop moral principles. At around the age of 2, children will begin to feel moral emotions and start to understand the difference between right and wrong. 

Most toddlers will be primarily motivated by the threat of punishment, and they are likely to be concerned about getting caught or punished than they are to be concerned about someone else’s welfare. While there may be some cases where a child younger than 4 years will show signs of empathy, this emotion is unlikely to develop more until ages 4 to 5.

A lot of parents worry about their toddlers who do not seem to care about hurting other people, but those feelings will develop later with parental guidance. Children will, however, make various moral decisions throughout each day like whether to share, what to do about a mean person, how to get away with theft or whether to try at all and other moral assessments. 

Every time your child strays away from moral expectations, it is a good idea to use it as a learning opportunity. There are various parental discipline types and strategies that you can utilize for healthy development and guidance. 

How to Help a Child with Moral Development

Teaching morality can be complicated, but there are some things to keep in mind that can help parents to offer guidance and understanding when trying to shape the ethics of their children. First, be clear about expectations and clear about morals and rules. At younger ages, be clear about the reasoning behind certain rules and try to use examples, stories, or their own experiences to help them understand why they shouldn’t act a certain way. 

Modeling appropriate behavior and reactions is important as well. As a parent or guardian, children are watching you learn. If you do not act properly, then they will learn those inappropriate behaviors. Always be careful to act morally and ethically, especially in the presence of children. 

Praise is also an important component of moral development. When your child does something right, praise those actions. Make sure to explain why it was a good action. As this praise continues, they are more likely to develop those healthy or appropriate behaviors. 

Conversely, make sure to hold children accountable for things that they do not do right or follow rules and procedures. Explain to them why their behavior was wrong and give them a consequence that fits the severity of the behavior. 

It is important to understand that guilt is a sign of healthy moral development, but shame is more likely to be a sign of low self-esteem. Shame comes from views of a positive or negative self that is often characterized by thoughts like “I am a bad person,” whereas guilt only comes from thinking about the negative behavior. Because of this, make sure that you punish choices and behaviors, not the children themselves. 

Finally, try to help your child understand their feelings and see that other people also experience those emotions. A child will be unable to understand someone else’s emotions unless they understand their feelings first. You can also help to teach empathy by asking the child to identify certain emotions or the way they feel when others are upset. 


Moral development can be complex and there are several common theories about the development of morality in children. Knowing the theories can give parents a better understanding of the ways that their children are making decisions and seeing different situations, even if the theory is not completely accurate. Then a parent can do better to guide a child through moral decisions and to develop an empathetic conscience. 

Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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