Ages and Stages: Ethical and Moral Development

Just as they go through various stages of physical and emotional development, children also grow morally and ethically as they get older. Psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan have each identified stages of moral development, which are important to social and emotional growth. The foundation for ethical behavior with others begins to form in the first five years, and early care and attention impacts morality throughout life.

What do children ages 0-5 understand about moral behavior, and how can we help them develop ethical habits? Here are some ideas:

Ages 0-1: While infants have no concept of morality, they know what feels good or bad, which can translate to right and wrong. When adults provide physical and emotional care, it helps a baby feel safe and “right.” Responding to a baby’s needs — from diaper changes to holding and communicating with him or her — sets an early standard for how to treat others with care and respect. While a sense of morality takes a long time to develop, by the end of the first year, most babies are beginning to learn about right and wrong, and are learning to imitate and communicate feelings and preferences.

Ages 1-3: Toddlers are often impulsive, acting before thinking. At this stage, children begin to understand the concept of okay/not okay, and may start to show shame, guilt or remorse if they do something wrong. While they begin to realize that others have feelings and needs, toddlers do not yet have the ability to truly distinguish between right and wrong. Instead, parents and other caregivers define moral behavior and begin to help children recognize a code of ethics — e.g., “We don’t take other peoples’ toys because we wouldn’t want them to take ours.” Caregivers serve as role models for ethical behavior. Consistently offering guidance, correction, and consequences helps teach children about the impact of their behavior on themselves and others, and helps define right and wrong.

Ages 4-5: Preschoolers begin to develop their own ideas of right and wrong, and they are better able to follow rules. While preschool children may be motivated to behave ethically or morally to avoid punishment or be praised, they also have an increasing understanding of the feelings and rights of other people. Though children at this stage often need to be reminded of rules and need guidance following them, they also begin to develop a strong sense of fairness and acceptable behavior. Parents can help children develop a moral code by discussing ethical dilemmas and talking about feelings. Setting clear boundaries, expectations, and consequences for moral behavior can help preschoolers clarify values.


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