Moral Development in Children

child development theoriesMany parents hope to instill in their children a sound moral compass: the ability to distinguish right from wrong and act accordingly. Moral development truly is a process. As children grow and develop, they establish attitudes and behaviors toward other members of society based upon factors such as social and cultural norms, rules, and laws. These personal values can result from parental influences or through life experiences and self-discovery. Most often, it seems that children and young adults arrive at their own moral code by combining certain values to which they were exposed while growing up with values they adopted as a result of discovery and contemplation. One way to begin to build a solid foundation for moral development is using storytelling to communicate and demonstrate various values. To learn how to use stories to develop your child’s moral imagination and to discover values contained in various books, check out Stories of Value.

Children develop different levels or morality throughout their childhood and adolescence. Esteemed pediatrician, Dr. Sears, details five stages of moral growth in children according to age. According to Dr. Sears, “Children go through stages of moral development, yet unlike physical growth, moral growth doesn’t happen without some input from parents. To develop into a morally solid person, a child must be given a solid foundation at each stage.” Below are five stages of moral development that children experience as they grow and develop.


It seems odd to think about developing the ability to moralize as an infant. However, what infants feel after entering the world is important for their development because they begin to establish what is considered “normal” for them and what feels right. In a way, while in the womb, a baby is effortlessly nurtured. After being born, a baby begins to discover when things are not “right” and as a result is met with discomfort. A baby experiences pain or fear when hungry, cold, alone, wet, or sick.  On the other hand, the comfort felt while being cared for in loving arms reestablishes that that is the right place to be.


As a toddler, a child begins to discover more and more about the world around him or her. A toddler is expected to follow rules and begins to learn boundaries and consequences from parents and caregivers. A toddler is not able to judge an action as being right or wrong and follows the direction of others. A toddler behaves not because of the action,  but because of the prospect of punishment or reinforcement. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, referred to this as heteronomous or other directed morality. Rules are  handed down by authority figures as being absolute.

Ages 3-7

From ages three to seven, there is a major turning point as far as moral development within the child. Family values are internalized as the child places importance on what his or her parents think is important. These values become the child’s norms. Parents still remind and reinforce behavior, but the child’s norms become part of the child’s inner self and children are able to behave based on their own ideas about the world. As children gets older, they are able to understand the golden rule: to treat others the way they want to be treated. They understand that other people posses different opinions and viewpoints. Parenting is very important during this stage (and all other stages of development). Children seek maturity from adults. A child who is connected behaves well because she or she has experienced positive parental direction. Children who do not experience positive parental direction may believe that it is okay to act a certain way as long as the child does not get caught.  This parenting course from Udemy focuses on raising children who are empathetic, loving, intelligent, and happy.

Ages 7-10

Between the ages of 7-10, children possess a strong sense of fairness. They understand the necessity of rules and want to participate in creating them. They also begin to question whether adults can be wrong. They respect adults who are fair and know how to be in charge. They do not feel threatened by authority, but believe it is necessary along with the principle that children should obey parents. However, they begin to realize that children have opinions too and can negotiate and identify what they “get out” of a situation. They can also internalize religious values and determine what is meaningful to them on a personal level. individual chooses to live his or her life.

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As children are able to see things from other people’s perspectives and put themselves in someone else’s shoes, morality becomes more self-directed or autonomous and less absolute. Piaget called this the morality of cooperation. While aware that they should still follow the rules, children view rules as being complex and somewhat negotiable. Children view moral rules as socially agreed upon guidelines designed to benefit the group.

Preteens and Teenagers

Teens and preteens are faced with much pressure in social situations and often strive to be popular. This makes them vulnerable to peer pressure and adopting or acting in accordance with peer values. Throughout adolescence, children are trying to determine which values they will adopt or keep,  and which ones they will dismiss. Children also become interested in what is good for society. Children may stop viewing parents as powerful authority figures and view them more like a consultant. The course, Positive Parenting Using The Law Of Attraction teaches how to use the law of attraction to feel positive and empowered while raising your child.

In conclusion, children develop morals beginning at  infancy. As a child grows, these morals develop and  evolve. Children have different ways of viewing authority figures as well as society and the world at large as  toddlers, preschoolers, elementary aged students, and preteens or teenagers.