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Early Childhood Moral Development Continued

Angela Oswalt, MSW

During early childhood, children also grow in their ability to tell the difference between moral rules, social norms, and personal choices. By around age 5, children see that moral rules are intended to prevent "really wrong" behavior that could potentially hurt or take away from others. In contrast, social norms are rules about socially-defined behaviors that are wrong or right; however, violating these rules will not hurt other people. For example, Kayla knows that hitting Darin is morally wrong, because it will hurt him and make him cry. In contrast, Kayla knows that playing in the mud in a new dress is wrong because it will probably make Grandma mad, but it's not something that her peers will get upset or angry about. Kayla will also be able to identify different personal choices. She'll realize that even though she doesn't like to put ketchup in her macaroni and cheese, it's okay for Frankie to eat this concoction if he likes that taste.

By ages 6 and 7, the ability to differentiate between moral rules, social norms, and personal choices matures, and children can take more circumstances and possibilities into account when thinking about the ramifications of different behavior. For example, Becky knows that it is not okay to copy her friend's homework, even if she didn't have time to complete her math problems because she was at soccer practice (e.g., a moral rule). She also knows that even though it won't hurt anyone, giggling with and tickling her sister during a religious service is inappropriate (e.g., a social norm). Finally, she can think about the consequences of going outside on a chilly day without a jacket, and choose to do so (against her father's advice) anyway (e.g., a personal choice).

During the Preoperational stage, young children also start to understand that they have a choice between "right" and "wrong" in a tempting situation. For example, Sarah realizes that when Mom says "no cookies before dinner" and there's a plate of cookies on the table, she can choose whether to grab one or not. Children's ability to understand that they can make right or wrong choices leads to more self-control. Most children will be able to start delaying self-gratification (i.e. hold off doing things that will feel good in the moment) in order to make good choices. This new moral ability can be cultivated through positive discipline. Parents can be sure to highlight children's "good choices" and "bad choices" without labeling the children themselves as "bad" or "good." More information about positive parenting styles can be found in our article on Alternative Discipline (This article is not yet complete.).

While most facets of child development have both internal factors (temperament, genetics, and characteristics) and external factors (environment and social influences), morality is largely developed through external factors. Children's environments exert influence on their moral development in many different ways. Adult and peer modeling, family and societal values, religious values and beliefs, and parenting practices can all play a part in shaping morality.

Some moral behaviors are passed on by way of verbal stories or structured lessons, such as religious parables or classroom teaching activities. However, more commonly, moral behavior is learned through direct observation and imitation. Children carefully watch the behavior of their caretakers, other adults, and older children. If they see Uncle Dan being helpful to strangers, they'll be more likely to be helpful to others as well.

Parenting practices and daily discipline have a huge effect on a child's developing sense of morality. Children who receive fair consequences every time they break a rule will learn to connect their choices with consequences. For example, if Daisy gets in trouble only periodically for taking change out of Mommy's coin jar, Daisy may learn that stealing is sometimes okay. However, if Daisy learns that she will get fair consequences every time she takes money from Mom's coin jar, she will understand that stealing is never okay. Furthermore, she will learn a lesson (hopefully) that she will carry forward as she matures into a responsible and moral young woman.

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