How a Theory From 1958 Can Help You Raise Good Kids

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As a clinical psychologist, I am often asked by parents some version of “How do I help my children to become productive members of society?” This is an important question. Equally important is the question, “How do I raise happy and healthy children?” Fortunately, the answer to both questions is the same: instill the right values. This is becoming more difficult as the world is increasingly faster-paced and fraught with challenges. Let’s face it: The world our children are going to inherit is not in terrific shape. As parents, educators, and humans in general, we have a responsibility to set the next generation up for success.

The difference between morals and values is nuanced and could be a post in itself. For our purposes, values are what an individual holds important whereas morals are a sense of right and wrong as related to society. Human morality, in concept, has been around for as long as we have interacted with one another. I imagine that early hunter-gatherers were thrown out of the band if they went against the group’s societal norms, likely ensuring the demise of the offending party. Religious texts as well as philosophers weighed in on what is moral or immoral in a given society, with varying relevance today. For instance, the Code of Hammurabi would be considered by most to be barbaric, with its emphasis on a literal “eye for an eye,” although it also emphasized societal order. Aristotle advanced his version of virtue ethics, many of which remain relevant today, with a focus on “right action.”

These writings on morality and ethics may be interesting, useful, and, in some cases, both. It is a 1958 theory of moral development, however, that I am focusing on in this writing due to its enduring relevance. Building on the work of Jean Piaget, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed an accessible and relevant theory of moral development that I feel can greatly inform the parents of today.

Kohlberg theorized that individuals progress through six stages of moral reasoning from childhood to adulthood. Development from one stage to the next is not guaranteed, and children (and adults) can revert to earlier forms of moral functioning. Moreover, most of us never even reach the final stage. They are as follows:

Preconventional Morality (Younger Children)

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation: If the child gets caught and is punished, the act was bad. If they get away with it, not so bad. In this stage, fear of punishment leads to good behavior rather than any deeper sense of right or wrong.

Stage 2. Individual and Exchange (or Self-Interest) Orientation: Right behavior is generally that which is seen to be in the best interest of the child. It may also be what is most convenient to the child. The needs of others are generally not considered unless they also benefit the child’s self-interest.

Conventional Morality (Older Children, Adolescents, and Some Adults)

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationship (or Good-Boy/Good-Girl Driven): In this more advanced stage, older children and adolescents understand that their behavior impacts other people, and they try to live up to the expectations of parents, teachers, and other important figures in their lives.

Stage 4. Law and Order: Here, individuals go beyond what may directly impact their immediate social circle (people they know), and they begin to consider the broader impact on society as a whole.

Postconventional Morality (Some Adults, Not Achieved by All)

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights: At this point, what is “right” or “just” can supersede the laws of an individual society. The rules are more nuanced. An example of this might be a Robin Hood scenario of robbing from the rich to feed the poor. Kohlberg uses the example of his fictional “Heinz” who stole a medication to save the life of his sick wife since human life outweighs property rights.

Stage 6. Universal Principles: Here, we move beyond what is right for a given situation or even a given society. Instead, there is a universal human code of ethics that transcends any one person or country. Something like civil disobedience may fall within this realm. In this stage, the fictional Heinz may not steal the medication but start a greater movement to make it more available to many individuals, including his wife.

Taking into account Kohlberg’s theory, parents have an opportunity to help promote prosocial, healthy moral development in their children. Obviously, some stages require certain brain development to occur, so a 5-year-old is not developmentally prepared to jump to Stage 5. Truly, the actual stage is less important than whether the child is developing traits and behaviors that are going to foster age-appropriate, positive human interactions. These traits, in turn, set the stage for their being a source of good in their community and the world one day. To help facilitate this development, I recommend that parents consider the following steps:

Ethics and Morality Essential Reads

  • Examine your own level of moral development. It is important to ask ourselves whether we are focusing on the right choices for the right reasons. Some of us still get caught up in pleasing others (good boy/good girl) or avoiding punishment. Sometimes, we may be morally solid in some areas but have “blind spots” in others. Doing a full inventory of our own level of moral development helps us set a baseline for modeling healthy and prosocial behavior for our children, which is the next suggestion.
  • Serve as a model for your child. We know that our children are watching us and generally take in even more than we think they do. At nearly every stage, children are observing what we do and how we act as a reference point for what is acceptable behavior. By acting in accordance with our own values, we help ensure that our children have the right set of tools to develop their own moral compass.
  • Connect the dots. Here, we not only model acceptable behavior but also communicate the “whys” of what we do. We put words to our actions to make it easier for our children to grasp the moral message behind the behavior. An example might be explaining why we return a wallet to the police or the rightful owner. Over time, children will internalize both the positive behavior they witness but also the underlying message for similar examples they may face in their own lives one day.
  • Make a course correction. Effective discipline and appropriate consequences have been explored thoroughly in psychological studies. Corporal punishment has been ruled out as effective, and it makes sense based on Kohlberg’s thinking. Imagine a punishment for hitting one’s sister being a spanking. This would be entirely confusing to the child and keep them firmly stuck in stage one, wanting just to avoid the spanking. Instead, open communication of the problematic behavior (to promote understanding) and a natural and reasonable consequence so that the “punishment” fits the “crime” helps children to effectively alter their behavior over time. Generally acceptable forms of discipline tend to be removal or delay of privileges, consequences, and time outs. Empathy and compassion can help foster the right environment for children to be open to the lesson at hand.

Although this article focuses primarily on parenting, educators can also use this model to incorporate the concept into their learning structure. Some schools, including my son’s, introduce the theory of moral development (including Kohlberg’s and others) into their history curriculum. It is relevant as they examine the purpose and motivations behind a functioning government (or not), civic duty, and the creation of just laws. Arguably, Kohlberg’s theory is relevant to most families. It neither supplants religious doctrine, since most major religions speak of a “higher power” than man, nor is it dependent on religious teachings if your family does not follow an organized faith.

It should be noted that Kohlberg’s theory is not without criticism. It is theoretical in construct, and a “real world” application requires some lateral thinking. In addition, Kohlberg’s studies focused on upper-class white males of the time. Researcher Carol Gilligan suggests this gender bias does not consider the “different voice” of relational morality, including the principles of compassion and care. Thus, it is important to consider these stages as a starting point in your own parenting and avoid any wholesale generalization. What is most important is that parents place emphasis on healthy and prosocial development in themselves and their children. This can lead to greater harmony in our homes, our communities, and the world itself. This is truly the way to be the change we wish to see in the world, in this generation and the next one.

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