Hot Topics
About Us / Contact Us
Activities & Curriculum
Activities for Outcome-Based Learning
Arts & Crafts
Music for Learning
Recommended Reading
Topics In Early Childhood Education
Art and Creativity in
Early Childhood Education
The Reading Corner
Teaching Children with Special Needs
The Teachers’ Lounge
Teacher QuickSource®
Professional Development
by Discount School Supply®
Job Sharing Board
State Licensing Requirements
ProSolutions CEUs

Emerging Morality: How Children Think About Right and Wrong
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

“No! I can’t share,” shouted Ernie. Desperation could be heard in his voice as Ernie defensively attempted to gather all 147 blocks into his three-year-old arms. “I NEED them!” he protested.

Ernie’s sense of fairness—right or wrong—had been violated by a request to share. Is Ernie a selfish, naughty child? Has he been spoiled? Probably not. A more likely explanation is that Ernie is simply thinking and behaving normally in a way that exhibits his emerging sense of morality.

The experts tell us that morality involves thinking, feeling, and acting. Feelings of empathy and altruism and acts of sharing and compassion are coupled to and limited by the individual’s cognitive development. How we feel, act, and think about good and bad are all parts of our morality.

A great deal has been written about emergent literacy and emergent numeracy as early childhood educators attempt to create and implement curricula that reflect developmentally appropriate practice in reading and mathematics. The young child is in the process of becoming a reader, a writer, a mathematician. We try to understand those processes while realizing that they will be ongoing, continuing to develop in varying degrees over the child’s lifetime.

In much the same way, preschoolers are emerging into the world of moral thought. How children think about right and wrong may be just as developmental as how children think about letters and numbers. Therefore, it is important to examine the young child’s typical developmental progression of moral thought in order better to understand how to link emerging morality to developmentally appropriate practice. This article will focus on the young child’s moral thinking. For that purpose, moral thought will be defined as thinking about right and wrong.

Is Taking off Your Hat Indoors a Moral Issue?
It is important to make the distinction between issues of morality and issues of social convention. While moral issues involve concepts such as justice, fairness, and human rights, issues that are conventions involve socially agreed-upon rules that are not moral in nature. Classroom rules such as taking off one’s hat indoors, sitting on all four legs of a chair, or limits on the number of children allowed in a play area at any one time are all conventions which involve no moral issue. Even children as young as three years have been able to distinguish between moral and conventional issues (Nucci, 1981; Nucci & Nucci, 1982).

Developmental psychologists advise that it is important for teachers to discriminate between moral issues and issues of convention when dealing with discipline over rule infractions. When a child breaks a rule that is a convention, she is simply to be told that a rule was broken and to stop the action. No lectures, please. If, on the other hand, the infraction involves a moral issue, it is important for an adult to talk with the child about the implications of the action in regard to human rights and fairness. The wrong must be made right so that justice prevails.

How Boys and Girls Differ in Moral Decision-Making
Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg’s, took issue with his finding that males tend to think in higher moral stages than do females. Gilligan (1982) embarked on research that led her to conclude that females think about moral issues in a manner that is different from, but not inferior to, males. In resolving moral dilemmas, females are typically less concerned with justice and more concerned with caring and maintaining relationships, even to the point of self-sacrifice.

Gilligan’s point can be seen in children’s free play. When boys are confronted with a conflict involving fairness they tend to argue it out or take their ball and go home. On the other hand, girls faced with conflict over fairness will try to resolve the issue through compromise. But if compromise fails, girls will generally change the activity rather than disband the group (Cyrus, 1993).

Piaget’s View of Moral Development
Jean Piaget was perhaps the first to delve into the thought processes behind children’s moral decision-making (Piaget, 1932/1965). While Piaget was not so concerned with what the child decided, he was interested in how the child arrived at the decision. In his wisdom, Piaget observed children playing games, told them stories involving moral dilemmas, and questioned them. He arrived at the conclusion that young children differ from older children in the ways they think about moral issues. The child’s individual level of cognitive development, enhanced by informal interactions with other children, determines how the child characteristically thinks about right and wrong. Though Piaget’s work was done many years ago, subsequent investigations have generally supported his findings.

Are You a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?
According to Piaget, preschoolers are in a stage called Morality of Constraint. In this stage, children tend to think of right and wrong in black and white terms. That is, an act is always right or always wrong. There are no shades of gray and there is no room to negotiate. People are good people or people are bad. Good guys are always good and bad guys are always bad.

Typically, the young child will define the rightness or wrongness of an act in terms of whether or not it will evoke punishment. For example, it is wrong to take your brother’s toy car because you will have to sit in the time-out chair. There is sure to be punishment, even if there is no one to witness the wrong, because the child in the Morality of Constraint stage believes in imminent justice. Accordingly, the child might believe that she fell and skinned her knee because she told a lie. The child believes justice will be served. There is always a payback.

Children in the Morality of Constraint stage are convinced of the sacred nature of rules. Rules must not be changed, even if they are simply rules for playing a game. However, it is right and fair to ignore rules if they interfere with one’s individual benefit. This egocentric focus is termed relativistic hedonism and is evident when Ernie says, “I can’t share the blocks. I need them!” However, Ernie would be incensed by the injustice of another child’s hoarding of the blocks. Relativistic hedonism enables the child to take from others without feeling guilt because, “I need it.” The child is not being bad or immoral. He is simply demonstrating normal moral development.

Young children think of right and wrong in terms of...

·        absolutes. Things are always good or always bad. It is unimportant whether an act was intentional or unintentional.

·        how much physical damage was done. The greater the damage, the worse the perception of the act.

·        whether an act will evoke punishment. If an act will be punished then it is wrong.

·        rules. Rules should never be broken. Breaking rules is viewed as wrong.

·        their own perspective. Children have difficulty taking another person’s view of an issue.

Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back
The young child’s egocentric nature is also evident as she mentally connects her own actions with unrelated events because she is not always accurate in her understanding of cause/effect relationships. Remember the old rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”? Didn’t we all avoid those cracks in the sidewalk and feel a twinge of guilt when we accidentally stepped on one? The young child’s immature concepts of cause/effect relationships may link up with her natural egocentrism for sometimes emotionally devastating feelings of guilt as the child mistakenly blames herself for a divorce, illness, or other catastrophe.

The writers of the movie Home Alone perfectly captured Piaget’s concepts of egocentrism and mistaken cause/effect relationships. According to the script, the young boy angrily wishes he had no family, awakens the next morning to find himself accidentally home alone, then egocentrically convinces himself that his family has disappeared because of his wish.

This natural egocentrism is also tied to the preschooler’s cognitive difficulty in taking another person’s mental perspective, or thinking about how the other person feels. The child in the Morality of Constraint stage typically considers only one perspective...his own. It is not until the child is in elementary school that he can easily put himself in another person’s shoes. And it is not until much later that he can comprehend multiple perspectives (Selman, 1980).

Preschoolers’ typical level of cognitive development places other constraints on their moral thinking, as well. They tend to think about the wrongness of an act in terms of how much physical damage has been caused, without regard for whether or not the act was intentional or accidental. If Sammy spills water while trying to clean up the art table, he will be considered naughty regardless of his intention to help. The wrongness of the act is judged in direct proportion to the amount of damage, regardless of motive.

In the same way, it is difficult for the preschooler to understand the concept of an accidental wrong. It may be impossible to convince the young child that a classmate accidentally knocked down her block building or stepped on her toe because the area was crowded (Vasta, Haith & Miller, 1995).

Children in Piaget’s Morality of Constraint stage tend to look at adult authority in a manner that is different from children who are a few years older. While older children evaluate whether or not an adult has earned or deserves respect, young children tend to think that it is wrong to disobey an adult simply because the person is an adult. Age and status confer authority. This, of course, is one factor that makes young children so vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Kohlberg’s View of Moral Development
Several decades after Piaget described his work in the area of children’s moral development, a young graduate student, Lawrence Kohlberg, began what would be a lifetime study of human moral development. Defining the concept of morality as justice, or fairness, he asked people to respond to a series of moral dilemmas. Based upon their reasoning, Kohlberg classified moral development into stages which he believed were invariant and hierarchical. That is, we all pass through the stages in sequence, reaching higher levels of moral thought. However, some of us get stuck somewhere in the progression and never reach the highest levels of moral thinking (Kohlberg, 1984).

Like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that in order to move up the staircase of moral thought, we must possess the cognitive abilities to think about moral issues in more and more abstract ways. That is, cognitive development sets parameters around our ability to reason morally. However, moral development can be facilitated if the person is regularly exposed to reasoning that is slightly higher than the level on which he is thinking. This exposure resolves cognitive conflict and helps moral thinking to advance.

In Kohlberg’s scheme, the preschool child is probably judging right and wrong based on the same factors Piaget described earlier. However, Kohlberg expanded the work of Piaget to include three levels: Preconventional, Conventional, and Postconventional. Preconventional and conventional levels of thought pertain to children and are described here. The postconventional level of thought is not described because it is beyond the grasp of children.

Preconventional Thought
When preschool children make moral decisions, Kohlberg would predict that those decisions would be based on avoiding punishment and satisfying one’s immediate desires, from an egocentric perspective, and probably on the basis of a whim. This level is called preconventional thought.

Conventional Thought
At the intermediate level, conventional thought, development takes a turn from concern with egocentric morality to consideration for the needs of working and living together. The child begins to think in terms of pleasing others and doing what is helpful. The emphasis is on being a good boy or a good girl. Concern starts to move beyond self-interest to the good of the group. While this level of conventional moral thought is beyond that of most preschool children, it is the level toward which they are growing. According to Kohlberg, children should be exposed to moral thinking at this next higher level in order to facilitate that growth.

Kohlberg’s theory remains strong but open to some criticism (Kurtines & Gewirtz, 1995). While the theory appears to hold true for Western culture, some Eastern cultures are not based on the same justice criterion posed by Kohlberg as the ultimate morality (Huebner & Garrod, 1991).

How to Help Children Develop Moral Thought and Action

1.       Deal with problems appropriately. When dealing with discipline problems, determine whether the infraction involves a moral issue or a social convention, and deal with the situation accordingly. If a moral issue is involved, be sure to talk with the child so that she understands the reasons her actions were wrong, lead the child to consider that the other person also has a perspective, and help the child decide how to right the wrong. Use reasoning rather than punishment. “I’m sorry” should be spoken only from the child’s heart, never upon command.


2.       Allow children to experience moral conflict. Schedule large blocks of free play time so that children may experience natural moral conflicts and practice working out their solutions.


3.       Discuss moral dilemmas. Select stories involving moral dilemmas and talk about the perspectives of the various characters. Emphasize that people make mistakes. We are not always good or always bad.


4.       Encourage children to change the rules. When playing a favorite game, encourage children to change the rules. Play the game in different ways, emphasizing that if all the players agree, it is OK to change the rules.


5.       Involve children in making some classroom rules. Emphasize what is good for the group. Avoid having children decide on punishments because they will most likely prefer harsh, unrealistic punishments that do nothing to change behavior.


6.       Encourage dramatic play and role playing. Dramatic play and role play enable children to stand in another person’s shoes and promote the development of perspective-taking.


7.       Explore the concept of intention and motive. Use stories and puppet skits. Discuss the character’s motivations. Did Goldilocks try to break the Little Bear’s chair? Why did it break? How did Little Bear feel? What could Goldilocks do to help Little Bear feel better?


8.       Praise moral behavior. Make it a point to comment on the helpful nature of an act that promotes or assists other individuals within the group. Praise children for putting the needs of the group ahead of their own needs. Recognize children for being kind, fair, and helpful.


9.       Use real dilemmas. Use real dilemmas and concrete classroom situations to discuss moral issues. Avoid the use of fables and maxims as they are too abstract for young children to comprehend fully.

Because young children are emerging moral thinkers constrained by their cognitive characteristics, the early childhood curriculum should provide opportunities for children to deal with moral issues and think about right and wrong in developmentally appropriate ways. Preschool teachers can promote children’s moral development by dealing with issues of fairness, justice, human rights, and caring. In addition, the teacher who understands normal moral development will be aware of the reasons young children sometimes appear to be selfish and will recognize opportunities to promote the development of moral thinking in ways that match the child’s cognitive level of functioning.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.

Cyrus, V. (1993). Experiencing Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Huebner, A. & Garrod, A. (1991). “Equilibration and the Learning Paradox.” Human Development, 34, 261-272.

Kohlberg, L. (9184). Essays on Moral Development, Volume II: The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Kurtines, W. & Gewirtz, J. (Eds.) (1995). Moral Development: An Introduction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Nucci, L. (1981). “The Development of Personal Concepts: A Domain Distinct from Moral or Societal Concepts.” Child Development, 52, 114-121.

Nucci, L. & Nucci, M. (1982). “Children’s Responses to Moral and Social Conventional Transgressions in Free Play Settings.” Child Development, 53, 1337-1342.

Piaget, J. (1932/1965). The Moral Judgment of the Child. (M. Gabain, Trans.) New York: Free Press. (Originally published 1932.)

Selman, R. (1980). The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding: Developmental and Clinical Analysis. New York: Academic Press.

Vasta, R.; Haith, M.; & Miller, S. (1995). Child Psychology: A Modern Science. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.