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Brofenbrenner's Environmentally Influenced Morality

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

Piaget and Kohlberg's theories on moral development focus primarily on internal factors (individual understandings and cognitive abilities) regulating children's moral decision-making. In contrast, Brofenbrenner's work explored the influence of environmental forces on children's moral development. In this regard, cultural forces, family traditions and religious training, and parental understandings and actions regarding childrearing, discipline and socialization all deeply influence children's appreciation of right and wrong, proper behavior, fairness, and appreciation of outcomes associated with particular behaviors they might contemplate engaging in.

happy familyOften, families purposefully choose to instill certain moral beliefs or ideas in their children because these ideas are an integral part of their heritage or history. These teachings may carry implicit moral understandings about the nature of fairness. For example, some families choose to acknowledge and celebrate the heritage of their ancestors who came to America to start a new life with no possessions or money. Implicit in this story is a moral rule to the effect that everyone must work very hard in order to obtain what they need and want and that no one is entitled to get something for nothing. Other families teach children that parents are the ultimate authority figures to whom they must always submit. In this sort of family environment, it is considered fair that parents decide which after school activities children will participate in, or which friendships a child should maintain. Children are not allowed to make personal choices. Instead, parents' personal choices are elevated to the level of moral rules. Violation of parental demands is considered highly inappropriate behavior and would be severely punished.

Children raised in religious families or religiously influenced cultures are taught and become influenced by religious teachings regarding morality. Most organized religions are very direct and explicit in providing moral guidance to children and adults. Religious moral teachings are delivered in the form of stories (drawn from holy scripture or learned commentary on that scripture), sermons or lessons (i.e., direct moral instruction by religious leaders), and songs (i.e., hymns). Moral religious messages may also appear in the popular media in the form of songs, books, TV shows and video games, and in the news (as various groups promote public policy positions). In this popular capacity, the moral teachings of specific religious groups may come to influence the moral thinking of children who are not directly affiliated with those religious groups.

Children learn in part by modeling the behavior and attitudes of other trusted adults and older peers with whom they interact. On this basis, children often learn to agree with and make moral decisions based upon their observation of family members' and friends' actions and statements. If James watches his Dad lying or stealing to get what he wants (what Dad may say he "deserves"), James may grow up believing that stealing is an appropriate way to obtain the things he wants. Conversely, if Sandy's Mom teaches her that it is stealing whenever a person purposefully takes something from another they haven't paid for or been given, she will internalize this definition and likely, come to use it as a guide for her own behavior. Sandy is even more likely to internalize this moral rule regarding theft should she sees that her mother takes it seriously enough to return to the store after realizing that a clerk has mistakenly failed to charge her for a portion of her total purchase. If Sandy's mom says one thing but then is observed to do another, Sandy may draw a different conclusion regarding the moral value of never taking advantage of another's mistake.