Early Childhood Education

Development, Moral


Moral development is the domain in which children grow in their ability to think and act according to their understanding of what is right and wrong. As their moral understanding develops, children are increasingly able to act with the needs of others in mind and resolve moral dilemmas based on ideals of justice, fairness, or caring. Factors in this area of development are children’s innate predisposition for empathy, modeling of adults and peers, explicit teaching, transmission of cultural values and their own experiences in interactions with others. Moral development is closely related to cognitive as well as social-emotional development. What we know about young children’s development of moral reasoning is based on, first, the cognitively oriented theories of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg (as modified and extended by later researchers including William Damon, Elliot Turiel, Carol Gilligan, and others); and second, the more emotionally oriented research studies that uncover young children’s early capacities for empathy, sympathy, and prosocial behavior as well as shame and guilt in conscience development (for these emotional aspects, see Development, Emotional, Development, Social, and Social Curriculum). Aspects of current thinking about children’s moral development include an emphasis on children’s multidimensional moral competence and on recognition of the role of cultural and familial contexts in children’s moral development.


Cognitive Stage Theories of Moral Development

In keeping with his theory of stages of cognitive development, Piaget also describes stages of moral development. Young children in Piaget’s preoperational stage engage in moral absolutism and realism, a morality of constraint based on simple awe for adult power, concern for concrete rewards and punishment, and unquestioning adherence to outside commands. Moral relativism and autonomy come later in middle childhood when children develop more elaborate ideas about moral intentionality, extenuating circumstances, mutual parent-child respect, and knowledge about where rules and laws come from and how they can be changed—all associated with concrete or formal operational thinking.

Lawrence Kohlberg extended Piaget’s work to develop a stage theory that includes the moral reasoning of adolescents and adults. His six stages are based on the moral judgments that individuals make when grappling with moral dilemmas that involve conflicting issues of right and wrong. To illustrate the differences in reasoning at each stage, he offers a moral dilemma faced by a man he calls Heinz whose wife is dying. The druggist is charging Heinz a great deal of money for the drug that will save his wife. Heinz must decide if he should steal the drug. For Kohlberg, moral development lies in cognitive-structural advances in reasoning about the issues of life, law, property, family roles, authority, crime and punishment that are evoked by the dilemma. (See table for the six stages.) In Kohlberg’s theory, young children (about age 6) are typically Stage 1, oriented to simple obedience, but during middle childhood, move to Stage 2, where they make decisions based on tit-for-tat justice, and instrumental rewards and punishment.


Moral Development: Comparison of Theories of Moral Reasoning

Extending Kohlberg’s theory, William Damon elaborated Kohlberg’s descriptions of younger children’s moral thinking based on his studies of their ideas about sharing and other kinds of positive justice, for example, what is right to do when dividing up five cookies among two children, or setting bedtimes for two siblings of different ages. His stages reflect his view of young children’s increasing perspective-taking ability and their awareness that adult desires are independent of their own.

Eliot Turiel challenged Kohlberg’s inclusion of children’s responses to all kinds of “good” and “bad” behavior as parts of morality. Instead, Turiel has focused on reasoning about moral rights and wrongs as separate from social conventions. He claims that young children intuitively appreciate a difference in kind between, say, a moral violation of someone’s rights (e.g., not to be hurt or to have their property stolen) and a social conventional violation (which concerns rules about the customary, polite, or orderly way of doing things). These intuitions arise out of their own experiences in social interaction.

Challenging another aspect of Kohlberg’s theory, Carol Gilligan disputed the emphasis on morality as reasoning about justice and instead focused on morality as reasoning about caring, connectedness, and support for relationships. When thinking about dilemmas, many people (particularly women, Gilligan claims) draw away from absolute decisions separated from contextual and particular issues, but instead seek alternatives that will most strengthen or do least harm to the individual relationships involved. As children grow older, their reasoning about relationships and connections grows more elaborate and fine tuned in a way parallel to but distinct from what happens with their reasoning about justice issues. Gilligan’s work points to the impact of gender and possibly other aspects of identity on moral themes that people highlight as they struggle with moral temptations and dilemmas.

Nel Noddings draws on philosophy (not psychology) to support her premise that caring, empathy, and altruism provide a perspective for understanding children’s moral actions. She offers a distinctive view on the idea of caring as the ethic of care, and describes caring as a reciprocal action that “teaches” or “nurtures” both the one who gives care and the one who receives care. An early childhood environment of active caring with opportunities for children to both provide and receive care encourages them to think and act in a context of moral understanding. Lisa Goldstein has applied Noddings’ work about a caring curriculum in schools to early childhood education.






Stages of children’s moral development align with stages of cognitive development.

Moral realism:

Children make decisions by following rules as determined by others without questioning authority (preoperational thinking)

Moral relativism:

• Conventional morality.

Rule-orientation includes ideas of fairness and equality (concrete operations)

• Autonomous morality:

Children consider aspects of the situation, such as intention, when making decisions (formal operations)

Additional stages extend to the highest level adult reasoning


Stage 1: Punishment and obedience orientation:

Decisions conform with adult authority to avoid punishment

Stage 2: Naïve instrumental hedonism:

Decisions are based on rewards and self-interest.


Stage 3: Conformity and approval:

Good boy/good girl decisions made to please others

Stage 4: Conformity to social order:

Decisions follow society’s laws and rules


Stage 5: Law as social contract:

Laws are made by people who can agree to change them

Stage 6: Universal ethical principals:

respect for human dignity guides all decision making

Stages describe very young children’s moral reasoning

Stage 0A:

Undifferentiated reasoning based on self-orientation;

own wishes and needs are satisfied

Stage 0B:

Undifferentiated reasoning based on strict equality, the same for all

Stage 1A:

Differentiated reasoning based on merit. Hard worker deserve more

Stage 1B:

Differentiated reasoning based on need with some consideration of merit and reciprocity

Instead of stages, different perspectives or orientations guide moral reasoning, more aligned with gender than with age

Abstract justice and fairness/individual orientation


Relationships and caring/other or interpersonal orientation

Adapted from Wheeler, Edyth J. (2004). Conflict resolution in early childhood: Helping children understand and resolve conflicts. Upper Saddle River. NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.


Implications of Cognitively Oriented Theories

All these theories provide a picture of how both children and adults bring their thinking to bear on moral issues. Reasoning is not consistent across situations and conditions, however. For example, a child may reason at a more mature level about hypothetical issues than about ones that relate to his own self-interest. Furthermore, children are often able to comprehend reasoning at a higher stage with help than they are able to on their own. It is clear that the development of moral judging and reasoning can be stimulated by role-taking opportunities and positive social interaction (e.g., through community service). By providing children with opportunities to practice thinking at a higher stage, adults can facilitate children’s moral development. This view is consistent with Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development and the practice of scaffolding of learning from an adult or a more capable peer.


Moral Competence of Children

Early childhood professionals have noted that children can sometimes show more competence in their moral thinking and actions than the theories about their moral thinking and perspective-taking typically describe. Consistent with these observations are current beliefs that children are more capable and learn in patterns that differ from those described by stage theories. Young children demonstrate compassion, empathy, kindness, and other aspects of prosocial concern that actually facilitates and nourishes their development of cognitive moral reasoning and action. At times their moral competence rises to the level of true altruism and moral leadership. This extraordinary moral competence is illustrated in the work of Robert Coles whose work offers insights into both what children may seem to know innately and what they learn from observing and listening to adults. He supports the idea that children can be more morally wise and aware than theories would suggest. For example, he records for us the moral strength, wisdom and forgiveness voiced by six-year-old Ruby Bridges as she passes though an angry crowd to enter her newly integrated school in Atlanta in the 1960s.


Cultural Context of Moral Development

Moral development takes place in every cultural community throughout history, but it is hardly an invariant process always looking the same. Quite the contrary. The processes of moral socialization have been shown to involve myriad alternative forms depending on how much the parenting figures choose to use physical punishment, verbal reasoning, love withdrawal, strict versus lenient control, involvement of extended kin and nonfamily authority figures, appeals to religion and to the supernatural, and negative sanctions such as ridicule, shaming, threats, and bribes, in their child-rearing techniques. Moreover, cultures vary greatly in their hierarchies of moral beliefs and values, with different groups providing various rankings of such values as honesty, obedience, loyalty, promise-keeping, sacrifice, physical bravery, abstinence, modesty, emotional restraint, and so on, as what is most important for a child to learn. According to critical perspectives in early childhood, children’s moral actions take place within a context of culture and family as well as community and classroom. It is important, therefore, for teachers to seek to avoid misreading or misinterpreting children’s actions when confronting cultural diversity. For example, a teacher may discover that a child has taken more than her share of food as the bowl is passed around the classroom not because she is greedy or disregarding the rules of fairness, but because her parents expect her to try to get food to take home to her brothers and sisters. The moral conflict (for the child) is between the ideals of equality and fairness among school peers and the ideals of equality and fairness among siblings as well as of caring within the family. Implications for practitioners include recognizing conflicting moral expectations that children encounter in different cultural contexts (see also Language Diversity).


Implications for Supporting Moral Development

An awareness of the range of theories that explain children’s moral thinking and action may help early childhood professionals in supporting children’s moral development. Authoritative or democratic parenting and teaching styles allow adults to model moral reasoning (see also Parenting Education). Children can extend their moral understanding as adults provide scaffolding of moral reasoning. Both at home and in the classroom, adults can demonstrate perspective-taking, empathy, and caring. In a classroom setting, children can practice an ethic of care through a curriculum centered on themes of caring, such as helping others, or caring for the natural environment. Applying ideas about care-based morality, practitioners may make space for different approaches to moral decision making and integrate relationship concerns into their teaching about rules, justice, and fairness. Further implications include listening carefully to children’s reasoning, respecting their moral competence, providing opportunities for expressions of their moral thinking, engaging families, and being responsive to cultural contexts of children’s moral development. See also Families.

Further Readings: Carlo, Gustavo, and Carolyn Edwards, eds. (2005). Moral development. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Vol. 51. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; Coles, Robert (1986). The moral life of children. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press; Damon, William (1990). The moral child: Nurturing children’s natural moral growth. New York: Macmillan; Delpit, Lisa (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press; DeVries, Rheta, and Betty Zan (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Creating a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press; Gilligan, Carol (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Goldstein, Lisa S. (2002). Reclaiming caring in teaching and teacher education. New York: Peter Lang; Killen, Melanie, and Judith Smetana, eds. (2006). Handbook of moral development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Kohlberg, Lawrence (1984). The psychology of moral development: Essays on moral development. Vol. II. New York: Harper and Row; Lapsley, Daniel (1996). Moral psychology. Boulder, CO: Westview; Noddings, Nel (2002). Educating moral people. New York: Teachers College Press; Piaget, Jean (1932). The moral judgment of the child. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Edyth J. Wheeler and Carolyn Pope Edwards