Moral Development Among Children

What are the key factors that contribute to children developing a sense of right and wrong and what are the possible consequences of a lack of moral judgement?

Author: Alison Finn

“moral development, both in the individual and the group, is a cognitively steered rational process through a series of sharply distinct, rigidly sequential stages, each stage superior to the proceeding one”.

(Braier, 1974: 603)

This assignment will consider what the key factors are that contribute to children developing a sense of right and wrong by considering Piaget’s cognitive theory of life stage development and how this led to the cognitive moral development theories of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1955). These moral theories are closely linked but have been critiqued by other psychologists therefore this assignment will compare and contrast them before critically evaluating them. This assignment will then consider what the consequences of a lack of moral judgement are for children by exploring conduct disorder and the implications of this on the UK age of criminal responsibility.

The development of a sense of right and wrong in children is often referred to as morality. Psychologists have studied children in order to understand the processes or stages they pass through in order for their morality or senses of right and wrong to fully develop. According to Berryman et al (2002) in order to have a fully developed moral awareness, individuals not only need to know the difference between right and wrong, they also need to learn how to regulate their own behaviour to fit the rules and how their emotions relate to these rules. Three distinct components, affective or emotional component, behavioural component and the cognitive component, therefore need to be present for an individual to fully develop their sense of morality (Atkinson et al, 1990). Whilst the actual morals and opinions of right and wrong may vary between cultures and societies, how individuals develop their sense of morality is the same. Berryman et al (2002: 169) describe this as “moral behaviour is concerned with the distinction between right and wrong taking into consideration the current feeling of the society in which one lives”.

Piaget (1932) proposed a cognitive development or stage theory in order to explain the life stages that children pass through before becoming adults and how they develop their thought processes in order to explain and understand the world around them (Boyd and Bee, 2006). Piaget determined that all children pass through the same life stages at similar ages whilst developing from childhood to adulthood. He suggested that there were four cognitive development stages when children’s logical thinking abilities were formed and that each stage had to be completed before the next one commenced (Boyd and Bee, 2006). In the words of Boyd and Bee (2006: 35) “it is important to understand that in Piaget’s view, each stage grows out of the one that precedes it, and each involves a major restructuring of the child’s way of thinking”.

Piaget’s first cognitive development stage was labelled sensiormotor and covered birth to around eighteen months old. During this stage, a baby uses its senses and motor skills to interpret the world they live in. In the second stage, preoperational, from 18 months to six years the child develops language skills and can use symbols to communicate. By the end of this stage, the child can start to see the point of view of others. During stage three, the concrete operational stage, between six and twelve years, the child can think logically, can problem solve and can understand the world around them. In the final, fourth stage of cognitive development, formal operational, from age twelve onwards the child can consider abstract ideas and look at hypothetical issues outside of the world around them (Boyd and Bee, 2006).

Piaget’s four cognitive development stages can explain how children build up their knowledge as they grow and how their understanding of other people around them develops as they build up social skills and social relationships. Piaget (1932) expanded on this cognitive development theory by considering how the social cognition abilities of children also develop as they pass through the stages and how they become aware that actions may have moral implications (Boyd and Bee, 2006). According to Boyd and Bee (2006: 252) “Moral reasoning is the process of making judgements about the rightness or wrongness of specific acts”.

Whilst young children may understand that acts can be intentional or accidental, Piaget (1932) determined that they are not able to understand whether they are right or wrong until they reach the development stage he named as concrete operational reasoning. This third developmental stage between the ages of six and twelve is when children develop the ability to make moral judgements about behaviour or acts (Boyd and Bee, 2006).

By studying children playing games, Piaget determined that children pass through three stages of moral development, closely linked to their four stages of cognitive development. Under five years of age, children have no understanding of rules and were therefore in Piaget’s pre-moral stage. Between five and ten, children were in Piaget’s moral realism stage. During this period, Piaget suggested that children understand rules and believe that they should not be broken or punishment would be forthcoming. During this period, children do not consider the validity of these rules because they are made by adults, they just follow them implicitly.  In the final, third, moral development stage, termed moral relativism by Piaget, from around ten years of age children begin to understand that rules can be changed if there is agreement from everyone involved. They also begin to realise that punishment for rule breaking is only forthcoming if a person intended to break the rule and the type of punishment received depended on how the rule was broken. It is therefore a person’s intention that is more important than their actual behaviour or actions (Berryman et al, 2002).

Piaget (1932) linked his moral development theory closely with his cognitive development theory. His theory was that morals develop progressively as a child develops and in stages as ages are reached. If a child does not progress through the necessary cognitive development stages, then they will not develop their morals or their sense of right or wrong. If a child did not progress from the preoperational stage of cognitive development at age six, they would not develop the ability to see the point of view of others and would not progress to the moral realism stage of development and understand the meaning of rules. This delay in entering the concrete operational stage of cognitive development also delays the child from understanding the world around them and they remain egocentric. They will be unable to enter the final moral development stage of moral relativism or understand that a person’s intentions are as important as their actions (Atkinson et al, 1990).

Piaget’s moral development theory has attracted some criticism because of the clinical theoretical approach he took when asking children what they thought rather than observing what they did in a situation. He was also criticised for the small number of children he interviewed, some of whom were his own children who could have been answering his questions in a way they thought he wanted them too (Berryman et al, 2002). However, despite this criticism Berryman et al (2002: 179) stated “Piaget’s work has, however, been supported by many cross-cultural studies and continues to supply a useful framework for a substantial body of research”.

Kohlberg (1955) was a supporter of Piaget and he expanded on his work by studying moral development from childhood into adulthood. Whereas Piaget (1932) determined that moral development ended at the age of twelve and that by this age a child had fully developed their moral awareness, Kohlberg considered that moral development continued into adulthood (Berryman et al, 2002). He developed a series of moral dilemmas which he presented to children, adolescents and adults and asked his subjects to choose between two moral principles. In the same way as Piaget, Kohlberg wanted to know the reasons why a subject chose a moral principle rather than what they actually chose (Berryman et al, 2002).

Following interviews with subjects, Kohlberg (1955) determined that there were three levels of moral development as Piaget had, but he split these levels into six stages. Kohlberg’s first level was termed pre-conventional morality and broadly applied to children aged over five years. This is similar to the moral realism stage that Piaget proposed, which he applied to children between the ages of five and ten. Kohlberg placed his subjects between the ages of five and eleven in his first level but he split this level into two stages. The first stage being punishment and obedience orientation where subjects conform to the rules to avoid punishment but cannot yet determine themselves what is right and wrong. Subjects then move on to stage two, instrumental-relativist orientation, when subjects conform to the rules to gain rewards but are still unable to determine right or wrong for themselves (Berryman et al, 2002).

Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, Kohlberg (1955) determined that subjects move into his second level of moral development. This level still corresponds with Piaget’s second stage of moral development, moral realism. Kohlberg again split this level into two stages, with stage three being interpersonal concordance orientation, when good behaviour is based on what the majority thinks is right. Behaviour in this stage is aimed at pleasing others but there is some understanding of intent. This is followed by stage four, which Kohlberg named law and order orientation. During this stage, good behaviour is based on “doing ones duty” (Atkinson et al, 1990: 98) and helping to maintain the social order for the good of everyone. The age ranges that Kohlberg placed in his level two of moral development far exceeded the age of ten that Piaget had given as the end of his moral realism stage and thus he was stating that moral development took much longer than Piaget.

Kohlberg’s final, third level of moral development, post-conventional morality, started after fifteen years of age and he again split this level into two stages. Stage five was named social contract –legalistic orientation and occurs when the subject realises that personal values are important and that mutually determined laws may not benefit everyone and therefore in some cases may be broken. The final sixth stage is the universal-ethical principle orientation. In this stage, behaviour is determined by an individual’s own consciousness and whilst some of the principles of society may be followed, not all apply as the individual follows their own abstract principles (Atkinson et al, 1990). Stage five of Kohlberg’s third level of moral development has some similarities to Piaget’s moral relativism stage as they both state that this is when subjects realise that laws or rules can be changed by mutual agreement but the age range varies vastly. Piaget based his moral relativism stage on the ten to twelve age range whilst Kohlberg’s post-conventional morality level did not start until at least fifteen years old. Therefore whilst agreeing that moral awareness develops through stages, Piaget and Kohlberg differed on when moral development stopped (Berryman et al, 2002). Piaget’s theory stated that by the age of twelve, an individual’s moral awareness should be fully developed if their cognitive development had occurred in the right stages. Kohlberg disputed this age and determined that moral development continued into adulthood, it did not stop at twelve (Berryman et al, 2002).

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development has also attracted criticism as Piaget’s did. The moral dilemmas he used have received particular criticism as they were not relevant to the children he put them to, they were adult problems. His most noted dilemma, involving Heinz stealing drugs to save his dying wife, received some of the most criticism. His dilemmas were “as artificial and concern situations (e.g. caring for a dying wife) unfamiliar to children” (Berryman et al, 2002: 183).

Further criticism has been made of both Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories in that they both concentrated on moral reasoning by testing responses to moral dilemmas by children (Atkinson et al, 1990). The critics have argued that as all the dilemmas put to children were hypothetical, they could only apply moral reasoning to them but moral reasoning is different to moral behaviour. The critics suggest that children may act in a completely different manner when faced with an actual dilemma that was more relevant to them. Atkinson et al describes this difference in dilemmas

“Moral reasoning may determine what we say we shall do, but we do not always do it when we are actually faced with a moral dilemma, especially when strong social pressures are involved”.

(Berryman et al, 2002: 183)

Kohlberg’s research received further criticism as although his study was undertaken over a twenty year period, much longer than Piaget’s, he only studied fifty eight boys from the Chicago area who were working or middle class (Berryman et al, 2002). His findings showed that none of these boys attained higher than level four on his moral development scale yet he still included levels five and six in his theory. Despite replicating this research with a small group of boys in Turkey, again Kohlberg’s subjects only attained level four on his scale. This would indicate that perhaps his research should have been undertaken on a much larger scale and included children of both genders or that his studies should have continued for longer periods of time (Berryman et al, 2002). Kohlberg himself determined in 1978 that in fact his own moral development theory was flawed and that level six of his moral awareness scale did not exist. This is explained by Atkinson et al (1990) as

  “However, less than 10 per cent of subjects attained consistent stage 5 reasoning, and none reached stage 6. Consequently, post conventional morality (level III) cannot be considered as part of the normal, or expected course of development”.

(Atkinson et al, 1990: 99)

Despite the criticism of Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories on moral development, there is a consensus among psychologists that moral development in children is important for them to become a part of their own society. Atkinson et al (1990: 97) stated “Understanding the values of society and regulating behaviour accordingly are important aspects of development”.

If children do not develop a sense of moral judgement or know right from wrong, their behaviour will be viewed as antisocial and they will often not integrate into society. These children are often diagnosed as having conduct disorder. Liabo and Richardson (2007) define conduct disorder as “a repetitive and persistent pattern of antisocial, aggressive or defiant behaviour” (Liabo and Richardson, 2007: 13). It is the persistent pattern of behaviour that is important for diagnosing conduct disorder as many children will misbehave at some point in their lives. Liabo and Richardson (2007) also emphasised that the bad behaviour of children with conduct disorder, vastly exceeds that being displayed by misbehaving children. These children often escalate from antisocial behaviour to criminal behaviour and can use violence against other people, property or animals, commit shoplifting or theft, commit deliberate destruction, lie and have an inability to follow rules. According to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health

  “A very high proportion of those who have the most serious conduct problems during childhood will go on to become involved in criminal activity”.

(Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2009: 1)

The Chance in a Lifetime study estimates that about six percent of children between six and fifteen are affected by conduct disorder and thirty percent of all UK offenders had conduct disorders as children (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2009). This study has also shown that the younger the child is when conduct disorder appears, the higher the likelihood is that the child will have antisocial personality problems as an adult. According to the Ministry of Justice there were 74,800 arrests of children between the ages of ten and seventeen from April 2016 and March 2017. If the estimates by the Sainsbury Centre are accurate, then 22,440 of these offenders were likely to have conduct disorder. These statistics start at the age of ten as this is the current UK age of criminal responsibility. Children under the age of ten may have been involved with the police but they cannot legally be charged or prosecuted for an offence. Children who reach the age of ten “are presumed to be sufficiently mature to stand trial, and in the eyes of the law, as accountable as adults” (Houses of Parliament, 2018: 1),

At ten, the UK age of criminal responsibility is two years below the international age of criminal responsibility. This age is currently under investigation by a Parliamentary group as the United Nations has called on the UK to raise its age of criminal responsibility to one that “reflects children’s emotional and intellectual responsibility” (Houses of Parliament, 2018: 2). The ongoing investigation has specified one line of inquiry to pursue is whether more emphasis should be given to the psychological and moral development of children. The briefing note recognises that children develop their sense of morality and ability to recognise right from wrong through stages and that this is often much later in life than ten. The briefing note also recognises that the cognitive ability or maturation of children can vary and some may never reach full moral development as suggested by Kohlberg (1955). There is a danger that if these children, likely to have conduct disorder, were to commit a crime and be tried as an adult, they would have no comprehension that their actions had consequences or recognise that their behaviour was not socially acceptable. They are also unlikely to have developed the decision making or problem solving skills that their peers had so would not have the ability to regulate their own behaviour. Evidence has shown that being tried and convicted as a young child is likely to affect the child’s future changes and make them much more likely to reoffend and continue offending into adulthood (Houses of Parliament, 2018).

This assignment has discussed what the key factors are that contribute to children developing a sense of right and wrong by considering Piaget’s cognitive theory of life stage development. His four cognitive development stages explain how children build up their knowledge and understanding of the social world in which they live and how they should behave in order to fit in. Both Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1955) built on the cognitive development stages by producing moral development theories which indicated close links but with moral development lagging a few years behind cognitive development. They both agreed that moral development also occurred in stages but disagreed with the age that moral development ended. Kohlberg stated that moral development continued into adulthood whilst Piaget considered that by the age of twelve, children should have fully developed their moral awareness. Whilst both their theories have attracted criticism, they have been used as a basis for much more research, particularly by psychologists considering the impact on children who do not develop a sense of morality. Children with a lack of moral judgement are likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder and are unable to regulate their behaviour and are thus viewed by their society as anti-social. Their bad behaviour often escalates into committing criminal offences which can continue into adulthood and affects their whole future. As the UK age of criminal responsibility is currently aged ten, children can be arrested and prosecuted for an offence despite the fact that their sense of morality has not yet developed and they are unaware of the consequences of their actions or unable to regulate their behaviour to conform to the standards set by their society.


Atkinson, R. et al. (1990), Introduction to Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers: London.

Baier, K. (1974), Moral Development, Journal article in The Monist, Vol. 58, No. 4, The Philosophy of Moral Education (OCTOBER, 1974), pp. 601-615, Published by: Oxford University Press. Online available: [accessed 12/1/2019].

Berryman, J et al. (2002), Development Psychology and You, BPS Blackwell: Oxford.

Boyd, D. and Bee, H. (2012), Lifespan Development Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River.

Houses of Parliament. (2018), Age of Criminal Responsibility, Postnote Number 577, Houses of Parliament: London. Online available [accessed 19/1/2019].

Liabo, K. And Richardson, J. (2007), Conduct Disorder and Offending Behaviour in Young People: Findings from Research, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London. Online available: [accessed 18/1/2019].

Ministry of Justice. (2018), Youth Justice Statistics 2016/17, England and Wales, Statistics Bulletin. Online available: [accessed 19/1/2019].

Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. (2009), The chance of a lifetime: Preventing early conduct problems and reducing crime, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health: London. Online available: [accessed 19/1/19].