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Moral Development: Piaget's Theory

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Moral development involves children learning how to tell the difference between right and wrong; to use this knowledge to arrive at appropriate decisions when faced with complicated choices; and to have the strength and independence to act in accordance with that right decision (to "do the right thing") despite the fact that it may not be a convenient thing to do. As with other components of development, morality is shaped by multiple factors. Children's interpersonal experiences with family, peers, and other adults, as well as their maturing physical, cognitive, emotional and social skills combine to influence moral development.

Piaget's Theory of Moral Development

moral definitionAccording to Piaget's original formulation, children between the ages of 5 and 10 years see the world through the lens of a "heteronomous" (other-directed) morality. In this moral understanding, rules handed down by authority figures (such as parents, teachers and government leaders) are seen as absolute and unbreakable. Basically, children accept that authority figures have godlike powers, and are able to make rules that last forever, do not change, and must be followed. Children's reasoning regarding why these rules should be followed is generally based squarely upon their appreciation of consequences associated with breaking the rules. As breaking the rules tends to lead to negative personal consequences, most children follow the rules as a way to avoid being punished.

Children's appreciation of morality changes towards the end of middle childhood as a result of their recently developed ability to view situations from other people's perspectives. As children develop the ability to put themselves into someone else's shoes, their appreciation of morality becomes more autonomous (self-directed) and less black and white and absolutist in nature. Piaget called this expanded appreciation a "morality of cooperation". Starting at about age 10 or 11 and continuing through adolescence, children will have generally begun to view moral rules as socially-agreed upon guidelines designed to benefit the group. Children using this frame of reference still feel that it is important to follow rules, but these rules are viewed as complex, somewhat negotiable guidelines that are meant to improve everyone's lives. Children realize that making choices about following the rules should be based on something more than fear of negative personal consequences or desire for individual gain. Decisions affect everyone; and can benefit and/or hurt everyone.