Understanding Moral Development

21 Aug
August 21, 2014

The other day I was watching a group of preschool children playing together at my synagogue. At the same time that I was thinking how cute and adorable they were, I realized that I really had no idea exactly what kind of adults these children would grow up to become. I suddenly imagined Buford Furrow Jr.’s mother looking at her sweet and innocent son at age two or three or four, dreaming of him growing up to be strong, competent, successful and loving. What happened to turn an innocent child into a morally twisted adult who could calmly walk into a Jewish Community Center and open fire with an Uzi on little children?

Even though no one can ever say with absolute certainty how such a thing happens, we have learned a lot about how moral development really works in the past few years and can use that knowledge to better raise our own children.

We know for sure that no one is born with a fully developed set of innate moral guidelines and standards of ethical behavior. Ethical behavior is primarily a learned behavior. No one comes out of the womb genetically understanding how to make difficult ethical decisions or how to behave in complex social situations. These are learned behaviors, reflecting a combination of parental guidance, educational environment and biological proclivities.

We know that ethical decision making is the result of a complex combination of natural tendencies and social education based on input first from our families, and then from the general social environment in which we live. Even knowing all this, the most important thing to remember about moral development in children is that according to developmental experts, “morality” develops in stages slowly over time.

Since human beings are complex, automatic predictions of moral development is an impossible task. The best we can do is follow general guidelines for behavior, outline generally agreed-upon steps that will encourage ethical behavior in children, live the kind of lives that serve as adequate models of the ethical beings we desire our children to grow up to become, and then hope for the best.

When you examine the general thrust of how psychologists describe the process of moral growth and development, however, you discover pretty much the same pattern across the board:

Children begin their lives by largely being what we might call, “pre-moral.” The are self-centered and follow rules only when it is in their interest to do so. As they grow and become more socialized to the rules of society (beginning with the rules of the family, then school, then outer community), they shift to an understanding of what we might call “conventional morality.” This happens as they desire to join groups, desire the approval of parents and others who might refer to them as a “good boy” or “good girl,” in the sense of trying to meet the expectations of others.

This stage of conventional, conformist ethics takes up the bulk not only of our growing years into adulthood, but for many it lasts their entire life. The third potential major shift in moral development is into what we might call “postconventional, principled morality,” where the individual is no longer locked into the prevailing ideals, roles, rules and regulations of his or her social system. Here he or she can mentally stand outside the system, evaluate ethical decisions on a more personal scale of right and wrong, identify his or her own core principles and act accordingly. Ideally this leads to a principled, values-centered life where issues of the general welfare of society and value judgments regarding the individual’s ability to effect the quality of society as a whole through behavior that serves as an ethical role model for others becomes the basis of personal ethical decisions.

One of our goals as parents is to do whatever we can to help our children attain this higher stage of moral growth and discernment. We do this by remembering that ethical insights come to children in stages, slowly over many years. Parents must learn to talk about ethics and teach their children both by word and action at age-appropriate levels, or they simply will not understand the point they are trying to make. Until they are emotionally, intellectually, and even spiritually ready to experience their greater connection with humanity as a whole, all the preaching in the world is meaningless.

Ethical child raising is the result of a natural progression of shared experiences, conscious parenting role model moments, and thoughtful talks with your children about how to make the right ethical decisions in different, specific situations that arise in the course of daily living.

When you allow the ethical reasoning of your children to progress in a natural but guided fashion from one stage to the next, with your help and love they have the best chance of eventually arriving at the appropriate higher stages of ethical development.

One of the most important roles that parents play in their children’s ethical development, is to use the daily “teachable moments” that occur in all our lives to demonstrate your own ethical decision making process. When someone asks to move into your lane on the freeway, or you see another with two things in their hands behind you in line while your shopping cart is overflowing, or you get too much change from a harried check-out person – act as you would want your children to behave and then talk to them about why you believe such behavior to be the correct ethical choice.

I am convinced that children have an almost endless thirst for understanding why their parents act as they do. Therefore, you can nurture your children’s moral development by giving them at every stage the reasons for your own choices, the reasons for your rules, and the reasons for the consequences that come in your family as a result of breaking those rules. This helps children make the mental and emotional connection between behavior and consequences and to better understand the foundation of your own expectations of what is correct and desirable moral behavior.

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