Moral Development In Kids - Stages & Importance of Parent's Role

Moral Development in Children – Stages and Concepts

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Dr. Rashmi Prakash (Psychologist/Psychotherapist)
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Nurturing children to evolve into individuals who not only recognize and celebrate the goodness in others but also actively denounce wrongdoing is an indispensable endeavor for fostering a better world. By immersing them in environments that emphasize ethical principles and modeling virtuous behavior, parents and caregivers play a pivotal role in shaping their moral compass. Cultivating a keen awareness of right and wrong from a young age equips children with the tools to navigate complex moral landscapes with empathy and integrity. Consequently, promoting childhood moral development emerges as a fundamental strategy for nurturing compassionate, resilient, and socially responsible individuals. Delve deeper into the multifaceted journey of moral development in children to appreciate its profound implications for the future of humanity.

What Is Morality?

Morality is the ability to draw a line between right and wrong. A person’s morality is what guides their actions, thoughts, attitude, and behaviour towards others. It can be based on the environment that the person has grown up in, along with the emotional intelligence and cognitive skills of the person.

What Is Moral Development?

Moral development in early childhood is the comprehension and the evolution of morality in an individual right from infancy to adulthood, and beyond. Many psychologists have tried to analyse the idea of moral development in children by observing changes in their approach and understanding of morality.

Stages of Moral Development in Children

There are 5 major stages of moral development in children.

1. Infancy (0 to 2 years)

At this age, infants do not have the ability to moralise. Their idea of right and wrong stems from what feels comfortable and what does not. It is important to understand that in the womb, the baby was never alone, never hungry and was in constant contact with the mother. If this fails to happen in the outside world, the infant perceives this as something ‘wrong’. Being fed, held and cuddled is what feels naturally right for the baby.

2. Toddlerhood (2 to 3 years)

Although at this age your toddler may not yet be able to differentiate between right and wrong, he will have learnt the concept of ‘others’ and will begin to take people into account before taking any action. While he can’t tell why he can’t take his sibling’s toys away or why he can’t hit others, he will learn not to do so because he understands that he will be punished or reprimanded in some form. At this age, your toddler will play by your rules in order to avoid reinforcement.

Mother scolding her son

3. Preschoolers (3 to 7 years)

These are the formative ages of moral development. This is when your child internalises the values taught in the family and with what he can see around him. He looks for constant acknowledgement from you and as such will need you to direct him and take charge of the rules. Your child will also understand that being considerate towards others is important as people are affected by actions. He will draw a link between action and reaction, which necessarily means that if he misbehaves, he’ll face some form of reinforcement. Children also tend to have an empathy-based morality that rationalises that if they hurt somebody, that person will feel bad.

4. Pre-Teens (7 to 11 years)

This is the age when children begin to understand that adults probably don’t have everything figured out! Although they still obey authority, they are capable of judging the fairness of rules and identify the concept of equality. At this age, they will have a strong idea about what should be done and what needs to be shunned. They will also come to believe that children have opinions that need to be heard, too.

5. Adolescents

Teens are largely influenced by peer pressure. However, they do understand that their actions have consequences and may sometimes negatively affect others. Their sense of morality is more abstract, and they find it negotiable to suit their needs. Since they are driven by peer pressure, they may resort to morally wrong ways to impress their peers. At this age, parents become more like advisors and consultants to them than authoritative figures.

Several studies have been made on moral development in children. Let’s take a look at them, too.

Freud’s Concept of Moral Development

Freud’s concept of moral development is based on his theory of id, ego and the superego. Through these theories, he proposed that there is a tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the society at large.

The id is associated with the part of the mind that is self-preserving and is only interested in self-gain. However, the superego stems from the moral centre and is more concerned with what’s right for society.

Freud believed that a child would have achieved moral development if the child is able to make the transition from the id to the superego keeping in mind the societal interests.

Freud’s Concept of Moral Development

Skinner’s Concept of Moral Development

Skinner laid emphasis on the idea that the environment that the child grows up in, or is primarily subjected to, lays a foundation of the child’s morality. It translates to how the behaviour and the attitude of the parents and the caretakers shape the child’s moral standing.

Piaget’s View on Moral Development

Piaget drew parallels between the intellectual development of a child and his moral development. He also said that a child’s morality is best developed through interactions with groups and exposure to decision-making. At a very young age, the child’s behaviour is guided by how he will be affected by an action. At this age, rules are very important and are deemed as something that cannot be altered, and children are only concerned with the outcome of an action. As the child matures intellectually, he begins to realise the need to examine the motive behind an action and not just the consequences. At this age, the child also begins to analyse the fairness of the rules and will allow negotiation to ensure fairness to all parties involved.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg was in congruence with Piaget in the belief that cognitive and intellectual development was necessary to progress through the stages of moral development. His six stages (grouped under three levels) of moral development were based on the response of a group of children to a story posing questions and moral dilemmas.

Level 1: Preconventional Morality

This applies to children under the age of ten. Here, the children are concerned with avoiding punishment and ensuring that their needs are met. It has two stages.

– Stage 1: Obedience and Punishment Orientation

Children obey parents or adults in authority for the sole reason of avoiding punishment.

– Stage 2: Exchange, Individualism, and Instrumentation

Children, at this stage, begin to believe that the concept of rightness can be subjective and viewed from an individual’s viewpoint. They also base their actions on moral reciprocity and may tend to internalise an eye for an eye judgment method. They also learn to make deals and accept payoffs for positive behaviour.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

This stage begins at the age of ten and can stretch well into adulthood, with certain adults. It may remain the same throughout their lives. Children gravitate towards acceptable behaviour and the actions of adult role models.

– Stage 3: Interpersonal conformity 

Children engage in good deeds in order to be viewed as good people within a set social group.

– Stage 4: Social System and Law and Order

Rules are followed out of respect for authority and to maintain general order in society.

Level 3: Post-Conventional Morality

Only about 10 to 15 per cent of adults achieve this stage, wherein their morality is based on reasoning and principles that they have chosen for themselves. Most people don’t achieve this stage as they take moral values from people around them.

– Stage 5: Social contract and individual rights

Although rules are made for the benefit of the majority, there can be individual exceptions.

– Stage 6: Universal principles and ethics

People in this stage are guided by their individual principles that are applicable universally, like equality and human rights. They conform to rules that abide by these principles and shun others.

Albert Bandura’s Concept of Moral Development

Albert Bandura’s concept of moral development, rooted in social cognitive theory, elucidates how individuals learn moral standards through observation, self-regulation, and cognitive processes. This framework emphasizes the role of influential figures and environmental influences in shaping moral behavior, while also exploring mechanisms of moral disengagement.

1. Observational Learning

Albert Bandura’s concept of moral development emphasizes the significant role of observational learning in shaping moral behavior. Children learn by observing the actions and consequences of others, particularly influential figures such as parents, peers, and media personalities.

2. Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s social cognitive theory posits that individuals acquire moral standards through a dynamic interaction between personal factors (such as cognition and emotions), behavior, and environmental influences. This theory underscores the importance of cognitive processes in moral development, including attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

3. Self-Regulation

Bandura highlights the concept of self-regulation as central to moral development. This involves individuals monitoring their own behavior, evaluating it against internalized moral standards, and making adjustments as necessary. Through self-regulation, individuals gradually internalize moral principles, becoming more autonomous and responsible agents in their moral decision-making.

4. Moral Disengagement Mechanisms

Bandura also explores the phenomenon of moral disengagement mechanisms, which are cognitive processes that allow individuals to justify or excuse their unethical actions. By understanding these mechanisms, such as moral justification, euphemistic labeling, and displacement of responsibility, researchers gain insights into how individuals rationalize immoral behavior and how to counteract these tendencies in moral education and intervention efforts.

Parents’ Role in the Moral Development of Kids

You have an active role in shaping the foundation of morality in your child and can utilise it to help your child grow up to become a considerate human being. Here are a few guidelines on how to promote moral development in children.

1. Set Rules and Utilise Teaching Opportunities

It is essential that your child has a clear demarcation between what can be done and what needs to be avoided. Take time to explain to your child why certain behaviours like lying or hurting someone are wrong. Use this as an opportunity to teach a moral lesson to your child.

2. Be a Good Role Model

Children are very impressionable and mimic adults to the T sometimes. This is why it is important to exercise kindness and compassion in the way you deal with others and your children.

3. Positive Reinforcement

Reward a morally right behaviour with positive reinforcement so that your child knows that he is being appreciated for doing the right thing.

Father encouraging son to study

4. Community Participation

Tasks like volunteering can instil a strong sense of community and the idea of giving back to your child. Working side by side with your children as you clean up parks or help out at senior homes can help your child grow into a socially and emotionally skilled individual.

What Are Some Best Moral Development Activities for Kids?

Fostering moral development in children is essential for nurturing empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. Engaging children in meaningful activities that promote ethical reasoning and moral decision-making can greatly contribute to their character development. Here are some of the best moral development activities for 2, 3, 4 and 5-year-olds:

1. Role-Playing Scenarios

Encourage children to act out various scenarios that involve moral dilemmas, such as sharing toys, telling the truth, or standing up to bullying. This allows them to practice empathy, perspective-taking, and problem-solving skills in a safe and supportive environment.

2. Storytelling and Discussion

Read age-appropriate books or stories with moral themes and engage children in discussions about the characters’ actions and their consequences. Encourage them to reflect on ethical principles such as honesty, kindness, and fairness, and how they apply to real-life situations.

3. Community Service Projects

Involve children in volunteering activities or community service projects where they can make a positive impact on others’ lives. This fosters empathy, compassion, and a sense of social responsibility as they learn to recognize and address the needs of others in their community.

4. Ethical Dilemma Games

Play games or activities that present children with ethical dilemmas and require them to make moral decisions. This could involve scenarios where they must choose between competing values or navigate conflicting interests, helping them develop critical thinking skills and moral reasoning abilities.


1. What are the advantages of developing moral behavior in children?

Developing moral behavior in children fosters empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. It equips them with essential skills for navigating complex social situations, building positive relationships, and contributing to a more compassionate and ethical society.

2. How can schools contribute to the moral development of children?

Schools play a crucial role in moral development by providing a conducive environment for ethical learning and modeling virtuous behavior. They can integrate moral education into the curriculum, promote character education programs, foster a culture of kindness and respect, and offer opportunities for service learning and moral reflection.

3. At what age does moral development begin in children?

Moral development begins in infancy through basic emotional responses and gradually progresses through childhood and adolescence. By the age of 2 or 3, children start to exhibit rudimentary moral behaviors such as empathy and cooperation, with more complex moral reasoning developing in later years under the influence of social interactions and guidance from caregivers and educators.

Moral development in children is a necessary part of their growth process and can help steer them in the right direction. You must take the opportunity to help your child understand and internalise positive and good values right from childhood.

Also Read:

Major Stages of Child Development
Importance of Play in Your Child’s Development
Social And Emotional Development In Children

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