In Liberia's ongoing civil war, military commanders on both sides prize their youngest soldiers, often under 10 years of age, for their brutality and utter fearlessness in battle. The Liberian Educational Achievement Foundation documents atrocities including rape, torture, and even cannibalism committed by child soldiers, and a UN report quoted a commander who said, "They can fight more than we the big people. It [is] hard for them to just retreat."
Conditions like those in Liberia may seem unfathomable to us and cause us to wonder how such young children could be so amoral. But perhaps we'd be wise to turn the question around and ask how children learn morality. How can we - as parents, teachers, and community - raise children to have a conscience? Many psychotherapists who work with children and caregivers believe that the road to moral development begins early.
"The first few months of life are very important," says Dr. Kent Hoffman of Spokane's Marycliff Institute. His research centers on attachment theory, examining the budding relationship between children and their caregivers. Humans - even newborns - have an innate need and desire to be in relationship, he says. "If a child is held and is approached with empathy, then the child will learn empathy, which is the beginning of morality. If a child does not experience empathy, then you'll get amorality, immorality, or a very rigid and strict sense of right and wrong."
Early Theories -- Long before attachment theory appeared, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget posited that children move through four distinct intellectual or cognitive stages from birth through age 16. The ability to make moral judgments coincides with abstract thinking, he concluded, and is not fully developed until the last of these stages, starting at around age 11 or 12. He felt, however, that younger children can have an understanding of rules and the rudimentary skills to distinguish right from wrong.
While Piaget focused primarily on cognitive development, Harvard professor Lawrence Kohlberg borrowed Piaget's stages in his studies of moral development in children during the 1970s. He believed that individuals progress from an orientation based on self-interest to one based on reputation and eventually to one based on universal principles of fairness.
"Kohlberg follows Piaget and says that moral development happens in fairly definite stages," explains Spokane psychologist Dr. David Erb. "The way kids make moral judgments changes, depending on their cognitive development."
Before age five, he says, moral decisions are based on punishment and authority. Children act not on abstract concepts of right and wrong but on whether there's a rule prohibiting the behavior. Furthermore, the likelihood of punishment is a factor -- if there's no one around to punish violations, then it's much easier to break the rule.
The next stage, from about five to seven, is what Kohlberg calls the "instrumental relativist orientation," Erb explains. "There, he says the focus is still on getting my own needs met, but some notions of fairness begin to come in." The strongest urge is still egocentric -- that the child gets what he or she wants -- but reciprocity becomes a motive as well. For example, a child may take his or her favorite toys but then share the rest with other children. Sharing toys is not done for altruistic reasons, though, Erb adds. "At that stage, I'll share with you because I want you to share with me."
According to Kohlberg, children progress then to making decisions based first on what others think -- what he calls the "good boy, nice girl" stage -- and then based on social convention.
Current Research -- But not everyone agrees with Kohlberg. Later researchers, most notably Carol Gilligan, have argued that Kohlberg's studies focused exclusively on the development of boys and excluded the experiences of girls. Others note that Kohlberg's stages do not reflect cultural differences. While Kohlberg's work is still respected, Erb says, the critiques must be considered.
"The first criticism of Kohlberg is that he doesn't give much emphasis on empathy and attachment issues, the emotional dimension of development," he says. "Second, many argue that the stages aren't as rigid as Kohlberg believed, that we move back and forth between stages rather than moving fully from one into another."
For instance, Larry Nucci, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has shown that children are able to distinguish between social convention -- rules -- and moral issues at an earlier age than previously thought. In a study of preschoolers, he had the following exchange with a three-year-old girl:
Nucci: Did you see what just happened?
Girl: Yes. They were playing and John hit him too hard.
Nucci: Is that something you are supposed to do or not supposed to do?
Girl: Not so hard to hurt.
Nucci: Is there a rule about that?
Nucci: What is the rule?
Girl: You're not to hit hard.
Nucci: What if there were no rule about hitting hard; would it be all right to do then?
Nucci: Why not?
Girl: Because he could get hurt and start to cry.
From his studies, Nucci concludes, "Moral transgressions are viewed as wrong, irrespective of the presence of governing rules, while conventional acts are viewed as wrong only if they violate an existing rule or standard. Individuals view conventional standards as culturally relative and alterable, while moral prescriptions are viewed as universal and unchangeable." In another study, he determined that "conceptions of morality (justice and beneficence) are independent of religion."
Learning Moral Behavior -- Psychiatrist Robert Coles has studied not only how moral thinking develops but also how parents, teachers, and other adults in the community can encourage moral behavior in children. Along with his mentor, Anna Freud, he refers to the elementary school years as "The Age of Conscience," and argues that it is during this period that a child's conscience develops -- or fails to develop. While adult words are important, Coles -- like the attachment theorists -- sees adult behavior as the number one model for children, starting from the earliest years of life.
"It is important for us as parents or teachers to 'talk a good line,' to espouse various virtues, to try that way to build up the character of our children," he writes in his 1997 book, The Moral Intelligence of Children. "Especially we should talk about what we value and uphold, and why, as we sit with our children in order to read them stories. Mostly, though, I have to keep insisting, we teach by example -- a teaching that happens unself-consciously all the time, and a teaching that sometimes has to become more thought out by all of us."
While theories differ, nearly all who work with children agree that the actions and words of caregivers have a profound impact on a child's moral development. As Hoffman points out, empathy is key, which may explain why children raised in brutal conditions exhibit brutal behavior.
"The content of values taught isn't as important as the underlying structure," he says. "The real issue is, is morality rigid or is it supple? After all, that's what forgiveness is about. In terms of healthy emotional development, you have to be able to experience genuine concern for the person who has done wrong."
Here are 10 values parents could impart to their kids:
Respect -- See the value of each person and honor the uniqueness of every human being.
Honesty -- Know the power of words; ask yourself if your conduct would hold up to public scrutiny.
Fairness -- An ethical person champions justice and equality, eschews prejudice, and respects difference.
Responsibility -- All humans are interconnected, so what's good for others is good for me. Participate in the broader community.
Compassion -- Hear the cries of the poor and see the faces of those in need; work, share and give.
Gratitude -- Show reverence for creation. Protect the environment, immerse yourself in the beauty of the arts, and let creativity flow.
Friendship -- The most basic human quest is for relationship; learn loyalty and commitment.
Peace -- Let go of hurts. Work for peace with understanding, empathy, acceptance and reconciliation.
Maturity -- Learn to be child-like, not childish. Parents need to let go of their children.
Faith -- Read sacred texts, pray and follow your conscience. Remember that to do good takes courage.
-- From Golden Rules: Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children, by Wayne Dosick, rabbi and professor
Publication date: 07/03/03