Skip to main content

Morality Stages and Development in Children

I am a licensed professional counselor. My practice focus is in general counseling, depression, anxiety, couples, custody issues, and LGBTQ.

Moral Development in Children

Children learn their morals both from their family of origin, and the larger community of friends and school. It is important for adults to understand that morality in children (including teens) is a developmental process that takes place throughout the years of a child’s life. This process can be guided and worked with a bit better if the adult understands the different levels of moral understanding that a child goes through at what age.

Lawrence Kohlberg studied the way humans develop morality by looking at many different people over many different cultures. He came to the conclusion that moral development follows a rough outline and timeline for just about every human being. He also noted that some people may get “stuck” in one stage of development for a long time (even adults) and that people who get stuck in a moral stage probably have many other problems with maturing as well.

Basically, the levels or stages of moral development in a human being develop as a person ages, and they look like this:

Ages 0–3: Obedience and Punishment Orientation

The child is obedient because they are avoiding an undesired consequence, and recognize that there are rewards if they do what they are supposed to do. This is the “time out chair” when the child is naughty, and the cookie for being a good child.

Ages 3–5: Relativism

In this stage, the child learns that there is a relative quality to rules, how well they are enforced at different places and times, and a relative quality to how other children respond to the rules. This is also the stage where children learn to share items and themselves with others.

Ages 5–9: Good Interpersonal Relationships

This next stage is based on the child’s understanding that being a good person has much to do with their relationships: how well they care for and receive care from others in their life. The quality of the relationships and how people treat each other are what causes the person to do the right things. For example, at this stage, the child in school is good because they like and want to please their teacher.

Ages 9–12: Maintaining the Social Order

Like the last stage, this stage moves into the area of doing the right things because that is what makes the world run smoothly. There is recognition that rules and laws are organized into a system that has a higher and more noble purpose than just prohibitions. The child follows the conventions of rules, such as school rules, because that is what the “good child” does.

Ages 12–Adult: Social Contract and Individual Rights

In this stage, the person clearly recognizes that while the larger rules of society are to be followed and taken to heart, their daily morality is all about their personal commitments to others around them. Fulfilling these personal contracts becomes a matter of personal integrity.

Older Adult: Universal Principles

In this last stage, which Kohlberg said few people attain, the person is operating out of a very large sense of what morality is. This encompasses more than personal contracts and following laws, it relates to universal truths of morality, such as social justice. Often, this person sacrifices their own needs and wants in order to help satisfy multitudes of people to have the basic needs of life.

It’s important to note that when a person moves on to another level of moral development, they do not abandon the levels that went before; all of the same moral thinking and reasoning still applies. In addition, a person can be at a lower level of moral reasoning and be understanding the next or higher levels, but not yet fully in that higher level.

Children and Adults Can Get "Stuck" in Development Stages

You can see how, if a person gets “stuck” in one stage, and does not move forward as they get older, they will probably have some problems in their life. Prisons are filled with adults who have never moved out of the stage of obedience and punishment. Countless other adults have not moved out of the stage of relativism, and have gone through a good many marriages and divorces.

While a child learns their morality from the adults in their life, and exposure to places like schools and churches, there is usually not much direct teaching of children at their level of understanding about the facts and details of moral development. If a person is not explicitly told about and taught the fact that there are higher levels of moral thinking, reasoning, and development, they may not ever move on to them.

Of course, if the adults that the child is exposed to most have not moved into the higher levels of morality, the child will not likely do so either. Even when a child is presented at school or in a church with higher moral ways of functioning, they tend to stay loyal to their primary adult caregivers.

If a child has learned about the higher moral stages but has gotten fast, easy rewards by staying “stuck” at a lower level, they may not have much motivation to grow into a more moral person. If the child, say, has a real talent and gained skill at theft, and has not gotten caught, or when caught is able to accept the punishment easily, they will likely continue to be a thief. If they get caught in a big way, with a large life-altering consequence (like juvenile jail), they will also likely simply blame others for their troubles.

How Adults Can Help Children's Moral Development

Adult caregivers can help teach, motivate, and press children and teens to grow in their moral development by teaching the stages listed here, and challenging the child to function at a higher level. To motivate the child, teaching should include the idea of personal integrity and how personal integrity builds a person’s good reputation and helps to make an individual feel good about themselves.

Making written, personal contracts for particular behaviors, forgiveness, clear boundaries, long and honest talks together, and helping children to do charity work all help to motivate and press a child to grow in their moral development.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Charla on January 23, 2015:

Deep thinking - adds a new diisoemnn to it all.