Are children born with a sense of right and wrong or are they taught?
Like most other developmental areas in children, moral development also progresses in stages. But the awareness of justice, discomfort, guilt, conscience, and prosocial behaviors cannot be reduced to simple incremental progression, although the tool of stages gives us a fixed point from which to look.
We must take into account not only the biological factors, but also the factors of environment, parental socialization, peer socialization and the adolescents own ability to think through moral situations and dilemmas, which play a major role in the moral development of an adolescent. Which will bring us to an eventual conclusion that elevating one view whether it be cognitive or social learning, will only lead to an incomplete understanding of this topic and give a deficient picture of adolescent’s moral development.
To get a better understanding of child moral development these areas will be discussed:
- Bronfenbrennar’s Ecological Model, historical development of moral development,
- What impact does a child’s cognitive development has on moral reasoning
- And how socialization from parents and peers affect an adolescent’s moral development.
Urie Bronfenbrennar was an American Psychologist who looked at contextual influences and environmental forces on children. He developed an in-depth theory of systems that Laura E. Berk explains in her textbook Infants and Children “Ecological systems theory views the child as developing within a complex system of relationships affected by multiple levels of the surrounding environment.” There are four layers that all influences children: the Microsystem, Mesosystem, Exosystem and the Macrosystem. I will be focusing solely on the Microsystem and Macrosystem. The Microsystem has to do with the interactions the child has with those on an immediate level. The Macrosystem is the furthest layer in Bronfenbrennar’s Model; it deals more with what affects the child at national and widespread level.
This system makes ask questions like what laws have been passed that affect the way a parent takes care of their child? What kind of culture is the child being raised in?
Any discussion on development in children is incomplete if Piaget is not mentioned. His views and research have been monumental and ground breaking in this field; he is responsible for now a major field of research and understanding into children and the way they learn. His “Cognitive-Development Theory” is the basis for most of his theories and view that children are active learner passing through stages. Laura E. Berk defines Piaget’s theory in her text book Infants and Children “Children actively construct knowledge as they manipulate and explore their world” This concept was the basis for his next major contribution in our understanding of children, “Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development”, which consists of the “Sensorimotor (Birth-2 years)-Preoperational (2-7 years)-Concrete Operational (7-11 years)-Formal Operational (11 years and older)” (Laura E. Berk.).
Piaget’s work lead many others to investigate into how children learn, but one in particular we will take a closer look at. His name was Lawrence Kohlberg and he was also something of a pioneer, he took Piaget concept of stages, but looked specifically at the area of morality. Kohlberg (1967) formulated a six stage process that children pass through
Stage 1. Obedience and punishment orientation.
Stage 2. Naively egoistic orientation.
Stage 3. Good boy orientation.
Stage 4. Authority and social order maintaining orientation.
Stage 5. Contractual legalistic orientation.
Stage 6. Conscience or principle orientation.”
“Kohlberg views the six stages as forming an invariant developmental sequence in which attainment of an advanced stage is dependent on the attainment of each of the preceding stages. It is further assumed that a more advanced stage is not simply an addition to a less advanced stage, but represents a reorganization of less advanced levels” (Rest, Turiel & Kohlberg(1969)).
In certain periods of life, stages may overlap each other and one stage may take longer to develop than expected. Each child needs to be viewed as an individual, these stages are not standards, but they are more landmarks of healthy development. These factors don’t fit so neatly into a systematic view of discontinuous development because there is so much to consider and how they interplay with each other. I can’t go into too great of detail about what each of these stages refer to because that is not the purpose of this paper, but I mention them in order to make an observation. The observation being, that in order to fully understand moral development we must understand that children critically process and think through all the new information their receiving in stages. This leads to the next point, how does cognitive development impact an adolescent’s moral development in the Macro and Micro systems.
The fact that adolescents critically think and interact with their environment is more representative of Bronfenbrennar’s micro system. The child’s environment and those in their immediate surroundings are playing a role, but looking at this from a cognitive perspective one sees the child making his own decisions on right and wrong. This view suggests that children are not just blank tablets being filled with their parent’s ideas and standards of morality. But that children reason their way through mom and dads morals and then act on their own conclusions. “Some [children] are quite critical of how the preceding generation behaves and insist on behaving differently” (McDevitt, Ormrod). Some theorists speculate that children make these decisions based on what level they are in Piaget’s or Kohlberg’s stages (McDevitt, Ormrod). Other theorists have postulated that children base their reasoning on the emotional aspect of right and wrong (Aronfreed, 1976). They thought there are positive emotions from making a morally acceptable decision and there are negative emotions related with making morally wrong decisions. Based on this theory, children will make prosocial (“prosocial behavior- Action intended to benefit another, without regard for one’s own needs” (McDevitt, Ormrod)) decisions because of the positive emotions that come with. These are just a few views on the topic of cognitive development as it relates to morality in adolescence.
Adolescents are influenced by many factors in their Microsystem, but nothing can rival the impact that parents have on their children. Adolescents who have a good relationship with their parents and a strong sense of community service have a greater likelihood to grow up to be a morally conscience and generative adults. But the passage from childhood to adolescence in a moral developmental is not so easy; Hart and Carlo said that adolescence is built upon childhood instead of being two separate and different stages. Looking at the issue of parental practices and what constitutes best practice one researcher said “Hoffman (2000) theorized that parental use of inductive practices ( i.e., parental use of reasoning) orients children to others’ needs without overly arousing the children, whereas parental love withdrawal and power assertion may threaten children or overly arouse them such that children may become self-concerned or fail to process the information provided in the socialization”(Spinrad, Eisenberg, Bernt, 2007).
In a study done by Grazyna Kochanska(1991) found that “Parental discipline that deemphasizes the use of power, and thus presumably capitalizes on the child’s internal arousal associated with wrongdoing, results in more intense feelings of discomfort.”
Kochanska observed that parents who use love and sympathy with their children developed a stronger sense of internal guilt when being corrected for bad behavior. Instead of parents who use assertive and forceful actions; children who have parents that use this method develop a stronger sense of external consequences than internal. Kochanska also observed that children with anxiety levels have a stronger to moral orientation than children without such high levels of anxiety. These children who don’t have high anxiety need different parenting practices applied to them. In another study done by Daniel Hart and Gustavo Carlo (2005) they looked at adolescent moral development from a policy and societal perspective. Trying to understand how important moral development is in light of the fact that the youth of today are going to be the policy makers and leaders of tomorrow. Since the lessons of adolescence shape who we are in adulthood the study takes a hard look at how our youth are developing and learning morality. The fact that policy makers are taking note of this shows how moral reasoning fits in the macro system. Because of this we might start seeing more Federal studies conducted in this field of study and even a standardized system of moral education. Hart and Carlo (2005) remarked that “adolescence is the foundation for adulthood” and they also said “by understanding and eventually controlling the influences acting on the adolescent, adult moral character development can be set on the correct path.” Parent’s role in adolescent’s moral development, reasoning, internalization and moral orientation is undeniable.
In conclusion I must be cliché by saying that in terms of moral development we cannot give cognitive development or socialization all the credit. It’s not a matter of “either” “or”, but a case of “both” “and”. Each field of specialization plays a pivotal role in every adolescent’s moral development. An adolescent critically interacts and thinks about the influences of family and friends as that child is being oriented by his or her parents.
Berk, Laura E.. (2005). Infants and Children. Pearson Education, Inc. p.20-21, 27
L., Kohlberg. (1967). The development of children’s orientation toward order: Sequence in the development of moral thought. Vista Humana, 6, 11-33.
Hart, Daniel., Carlo, Gustavo. (2005). Moral Development in Adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 15(3), 223-233.
Spinrad, Tracy L., Eisenberg, Nancy., Bernt, Frank. (2007). Introduction to the Special Issues on Moral Development: Part 1. The Journal of Genetic Psychology. 168(2), 101-104.
Hoffman, M. L. (200). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. New York: Cambridge University Press
McDevitt, Teresa M., Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis. (2004). Child Development: Educating and Working with Children and Adolescents, 2nd Ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc…, 436.
Aronfreed, J. (1976). Moral development from the standpoint of a general psychological theory. T. Lickona (Ed.). Moral development and behavior: theory, research, and social issues,54-69
Kochanska, Grazyna. (1991). Socialization and Temperament in the Development of Guilt and Conscience. Child Development. National Institute of Mental Health. 62, 1379-1392.
Rest, J., Turiel, E., & Kohlberg, L. (1969, June). Level of moral development as a determinant of preference and comprehension of moral judgments made by others. Journal of Personality, 37(2), 225.