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Kohlberg's Stages Continued

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

Children's developing appreciation of these moral nuances becomes evident in their behavior at this time. They will take more liberties with personal choices and social mores than they will with regard to moral rules. Prior to this age, it is more likely that they will treat all three of these cases with a similar approach.

Distributive Justice and Evolving Concepts of Fairness

scales of justiceMiddle childhood aged children's increasingly more refined social appreciation also leads them to develop an evolving sense of "distributive justice"; what it means to fairly distribute a valued resource of some sort (cookies, money, etc.) across a number of group members. Starting from a position of initial self-centeredness, children typically come to increasingly attend to and value the welfare of other members of their social group. Their expanding social appreciation gets incorporated into their evolving ideas about what it means to be truly fair. These changing conceptions of fairness are driven primarily by children's developing capacity to represent and appreciate other people's perspectives.

Prior to middle childhood, between ages 5 and 6, most children believe that all goods should be strictly equally distributed. In other words, each person should get exactly the same amount of resource, no matter what. This is a self-centered version of fairness which is scarcely able to tolerate sharing at all, and then only by virtue of the rationalization that at least no stakeholder will gain an advantage over another.

By about age 7, children will typically have expanded their thinking to include the concept of merit. Children start to believe that the idea of fairness should be tempered with an appreciation for how hard people work or the quality of the results they have achieved. For example, first graders realize that Johnny deserves an "A" on the spelling test because he studied hard, while Bill may only deserve a "C" on the same test because he didn't do his spelling homework for several nights that week.

By age 8, most children's distributive thinking will have typically expanded to incorporate the concept of need; the idea that genuinely needier or more disadvantaged people should receive a greater share of resources than people who are less in need. In a simplified example, a young girl Mary might agree that it's fair and right that her sister Susie get new shoes when Mary does not if it is the case that Mary's shoes are brand new, and Susie's shoes are badly worn.

Accompanying children's increasingly sophisticated and nuanced moral appreciation are similarly developing self-control abilities. By middle childhood, most children will have become less impulsive and more able to reflect on their circumstances before acting, opening a space for them to consult their moral knowledge as a guide for selecting an appropriate action. They become able to stop and to think about what is the right thing to do, and to consider the potential consequences and benefits of different behaviors before they act.