Back to Basics – Understanding Morality and Moral Development

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Many argue that moral development and a sense of caring are values to be fostered at home rather than at school.  However, the teaching of these values doesn’t seem to be happening, as evidenced by the behaviors and attitudes of many adults in our society. A prominent author noted that more of our citizens are doing wrong for various reasons. It appears that our culture today has become very selfish, as people are more willing to ‘do wrong’ to get ahead.

Our society therefore reflects a serious lack of social responsibility and an unhealthy compulsion to succeed at any cost. How can we address this crisis for future generations? Resolving this moral problem will take more than the assumption or wish that our children will just naturally evolve into caring adults who choose to make socially responsible decisions.  Positive moral characteristics do not appear spontaneously. Many children may not be taught much about ethics and honesty at home, and some parents may be caught up in a ‘cheating culture’ themselves, setting a negative example for their children.

Addressing this crisis will take the commitment and involvement of many elements of society, including the home, early childhood, primary and high school education and the church.

Perhaps a better understanding of Morality and Moral Development may take us on the path for change.

What Is Moral Development?

Morality is defined as principles for how individuals ought to treat one another, with respect to justice, others’ welfare, and rights.  It is simply our sense of what is right and wrong.  Many theories of moral development differ immensely in their opinions on how moral development occurs.  Some claim that:

  • The quality of the parent/child relationship affects the way the child develops morally.
  • Children initially learn how to behave morally through modeling (imitating adults behaviour).
  • A child’s ability to reason morally depends on his/her general thinking abilities.

All of the theories, although somewhat different from each other, help us in our plight to understand moral development.  We all hope that as children grow up, they will develop a clear understanding of the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But what factors are involved in children’s development of a sense of morality? And what changes do children go through in their behaviour and thinking when faced with moral dilemmas?

It is intuitively appealing to see parents and the way they raise and discipline their children, as the main influence on children’s moral development. For example, a father who lashes his child for lying, may assume that the child will grow up knowing that lying is wrong. The idea that children learn moral values simply through being punished for misbehaviour is simplistic, however.  While children’s misbehaviour sometimes does have to be disciplined through immediate negative consequences, especially when the safety of others or of the children themselves is threatened, research shows that children are more likely to learn positive moral values from their parents if they are helped to understand those values through explanations.

Many researchers have also focused on how children’s behaviour is shaped by their observations of role-models in the world around them, including peers, figures in the media, and other people besides their parents. In fact, researchers have often demonstrated that other people’s positive and negative behaviours can be imitated by children. There is good evidence that children’s prosocial behaviour (e.g., sharing, helping, caring) can be increased by observing models who show such behaviours themselves.

In a similar way, seeing others behave in antisocial ways could potentially encourage negative behaviours.  Albert Bandura, a renowned psychologist, demonstrated that children who observed an adult behaving aggressively towards an inflatable toy doll were more likely to reproduce that aggressive behaviour themselves. This link between what you see around you and what you do yourself underpins many of the concerns people have about violence on television, although this remains a controversial topic in both public and academic debate.

If children do learn patterns of moral behaviour from others, is it reasonable to assume that their moral views are also influenced by social factors? If so, this strongly suggests that children’s beliefs about morality are at least partly shaped by the value systems of the society in which they are brought up. For example, a child who lives in a society that tolerates ‘cheating’ to get ahead, may not see anything significantly wrong with the practice. This highlights the point that the societal norms and values that are prominent in a child’s life need to be considered alongside his/her cognitive development, in determining moral development.

Additionally, in the early stages of moral development, there is a focus on punishment and rewards (e.g will I get in ‘trouble’ if I do this?”), but as children grow older, they enter stages where they emphasize social harmony and law and order. (Some individuals reach the highest levels of moral reasoning and also consider universal and ethical principles that transcend law). As children age, therefore, their view of morality also changes and becomes more complex.

Feelings such as guilt, sympathy, shame, and pity can all play a role in everyday situations involving moral choices, and research shows that children’s experience and understanding of these complex emotions also changes as they get older. Thus, when children are deciding whether or not to tell a lie, obey a dubious instruction, or help someone in distress, their behaviour will depend not just on adults’ instructions and prohibitions, or their ability to reason about the rules involved -it will also depend on their ability to control their own behaviour, their memories of what happened to them and to others in the past, and the way the situation is making them feel.

By talking to children, observing their natural behaviours, and analyzing their responses to moral dilemmas, psychologists have demonstrated that a wide variety of social, cognitive, and emotional factors are involved in children’s moral development. The challenge facing us now as a Federation, is to work out exactly how these factors all fit together as children grow up.  Maybe then we would be able to curb some of the antisocial behaviours that are challenging our country.

Ivy Flanders (Mrs),                                                                                                                 Guidance Counsellor (SSS),                                                                                                              Marriage & Family Therapist, Alcohol and Drug Counsellor

LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine“.