Why is moral development important

It is not only from America that harrowing news of serious crimes by children - including murder - keeps coming. We also hear of school-age children who chronically steal, cheat or riot, who terrorize their peers, take action against parents or teachers, from children's gangs who unsettle entire districts, from extortion, robberies, drug deals, rape carried out by children or young people.

With child and juvenile delinquency so frightening, it is easy to forget that most young people mostly adhere to social norms. They usually behave honestly and honestly, treat friends graciously, and treat elderly people with respect. In addition, many are actively involved in voluntary work: according to a survey in the USA, between 22 and 45 percent of young people in the individual municipalities. Sometimes children act as pioneers in social problem areas, like little Ruby, who found the courage during the sixties to attend an African-American school that was previously purely "white". As a result, she demonstratively stood up for her moral standards every day. If she was mocked and teased by schoolmates, then she prayed for them. Robert Coles, a psychiatrist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who wrote of such highly moral children, says: "Ruby had a strong will. She used it to make her ethical decision. She demonstrated moral strength , Honor and courage. "

No child begins his or her moral development out of nothing, because every child has a number of innate responses as a prerequisite for ethical behavior. This includes, for example, empathy: the ability to empathize with the joy or pain of another person. Newborns also cry when they hear someone cry, and they are visibly happy when they hear happy sounds and laughter. As early as the second year of life, children comfort sad playmates or their parents.

Of course, they sometimes don't really know how best to do this. New York University psychologist Martin L. Hoffman once observed a toddler offering his sobbing mother a comforter. The emotional readiness to comfort is given, but the child must first learn through social experience to give suitable comfort. In some people, however, the capacity for empathy remains undeveloped or even stunted. Such people behave callously towards others they do not want to empathize with. A New York police officer once asked a youth who had beaten an old woman to hospital if he hadn't felt sorry for her at all. The boy just said: "I don't care! It's not my problem!"

A scientific description of moral development must explain both sides, good and bad. On the one hand, it has to answer why most children behave morally passably and sometimes even in an exemplary manner - even if this runs counter to their own current interests. On the other hand, it must explain why some children deviate from the recognized norms, even though this often causes serious harm to themselves and others. Why does it matter whether or not a child develops moral values ​​to which they are indebted for a lifetime?

So far, psychologists have not been able to give a definitive answer to all of this. To the layperson, it may often seem that their research does not go beyond parental observations and everyday knowledge. But like all people, parents can go wrong if they are guided by subjective impressions, insufficient knowledge and reports from sensational media. They may mistakenly blame a relatively mundane event, such as a pop concert, for deeper problems such as drug addiction. Or they wrongly attribute their own difficulties to an overly strict upbringing and try to compensate for this by being overly indulgent towards their children. With such controversial topics, only a systematic scientific approach can prevent the arguments from building up and the same mistakes from being repeated.

The research field of moral development in childhood has been gaining popularity in the social sciences for some time. The journals print innumerable articles on this topic about new findings and competing models. Some of the theories underline the biological guidelines; others emphasize social influences and experiences; still others the judgment of the child, which develops with his mental development.

But although the individual theories have different emphases, they all emphasize that there can be no monocausal explanation for moral or immoral behavior. Violent videos or cruel computer games lead to only some of the children getting on the wrong track; others do not allow themselves to be unbalanced by such a thing. We would like to capture the decisive experience. As scientists, however, we should always be careful to appreciate the complexity and diversity of a child's life.

The field is dominated by three theoretical orientations. They are briefly explained in more detail. Let's start with the biologically oriented approach. The "nativists" among psychologists hold the view that moral behavior arises from emotional predispositions that are innate in our species. Hoffman and Colwyn Trevarthen from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and Nancy Eisenberg from Arizona State University in Tempe found that infants feel empathy as soon as they realize that there are others. This can sometimes happen in the first week of life. Some other emotions, such as shame, guilt, and indignation, also arise early. For example, child psychologist Jerome S. Kagan of Harvard University described the phenomenon known to parents that small children can run wild when their social expectations are disappointed, whether someone breaks the rules at their favorite game or whether the buttons on a familiar item of clothing are swapped.

The predisposition for such emotions is practically in every person and can be found in every culture. Mary D. Ainsworth of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for example, studied this in infants in the United States and Uganda. Norma Feshbach from the University of California in Los Angeles compared the emotions of European, Israeli and North American newborns. Millard C. Madsen, of the same college, watched preschoolers in nine cultures as they share. As far as psychologists know, children all over the world have loving feelings toward loved ones from the start and react negatively to brutality and injustice. Differences in social emotions only emerge later. Only under the specific value systems of the individual cultures does it differentiate what exactly triggers a certain social reaction and how it turns out.

The learning theories approach the topic from a completely different angle. Scientists who advocate this approach are particularly interested in how children - through observation, imitation, and reward - acquire norms of behavior and values. In this research tradition, moral behavior is context-bound and changes depending on the situation - almost independently of the beliefs expressed. Scientific studies from the twenties are still considered relevant. For example, Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May researched what children do when they have the opportunity to cheat. As these researchers found, it largely depended on whether the children thought they were being caught or not. On the other hand, the reaction could not be predicted from the behavior in previous situations or from whether the children knew general moral rules such as the Ten Commandments or the Boy Scout Rules.

When Roger Burton of New York State University in Buffalo revisited the old data, it was found that younger children were generally more likely to cheat than teenagers. Although the difference between the two age groups was not particularly great, it may be that dishonesty is ultimately curbed by socialization and spiritual maturation.

The third of these approaches emphasizes intellectual development. According to him, virtue and viciousness are ultimately based on a conscious decision for or against, i.e. on a cognitive process. Probably the best-known cognitive psychologists of this direction are the Swiss Jean Piaget (1896 to 1980) and the American Lawrence Kohlberg (1927 to 1987). Both scientists believed that children initially had an understanding of morality based on power and authority, according to the motto: "The strongest is right." Only later would they understand that social rules are man-made and therefore negotiable, and that it is more just when relationships are based on reciprocity rather than one-sided obedience. In his model for moral development, Kohlberg distinguished six levels of moral judgment (see box above). Since then, psychologists have used this step model in several thousand studies to measure people's moral judgment.

The main aspects of Kohlberg's model have been confirmed, but there are significant objections to some points. Only a few people, if at all, reach the sixth - highest - level and base their moral judgment exclusively on abstract principles. In addition, even very young children apparently have a much more differentiated understanding of morality than the model allows them. This is indicated by many results, including some from my laboratory at Stanford University in California (see also the interview on pp. 66/67). Even preschoolers do not act "well" simply because they fear punishment. If one person collects all the cookies or does not let the others on the swing, the protest often comes promptly: "This is unfair!" Younger children also believe in an obligation to share - even if their parents forbid them to do so. At this age they generally think that everyone is entitled to the same amount. The justification can be of an empathic nature: ("My friend should be fine") or cite reciprocity ("She also shares her toys with me") or refer to equality ("Everyone should get exactly the same"). Children find out that sort of thing by playing together. They learn that if they act unfairly, they get into trouble.

Ideal and reality

In fact, none of the three traditional approaches presented can exhaustively explain the moral development and behavior of children. For none of them grasps the most important moments of moral conduct: character and commitment. I mean to say: however children develop their initial value system - above all it is important to understand what makes them then also act accordingly, i.e. to live according to their moral ideals. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily happen. Research on moral development deals with these connections today, and this is also my subject.

Not only adults, but also younger children struggle with temptation. During my time at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, I devised the following experiment with other psychologists: We invited groups of four children to our laboratory and gave them strings and beads so that they could make bracelets for us and tinkered chains: we praised the jewelry properly and thanked the whole group with ten chocolate bars. Only then did the actual study begin: We told the children to decide for themselves how they would share the reward among themselves. Then we left the four of them alone, but watched them through a one-way mirror.

We had already talked to our little test participants about their idea of ​​justice, because we were interested in whether they would act according to it in an emergency or whether the greed for sweets would prevail. We presented a comparison group with much less tempting colored boxes. Because we wanted to find out whether any discrepancies between moral concepts and actual behavior changed with increasing age, we carried out the study with four-year-olds, six-, eight-year-olds and ten-year-olds.

The children's morals did indeed have an influence, but the desire for sweets broke through quite clearly. Our young subjects were almost three times as generous with colored cardboard. But even when handing out the chocolate bars, the basic moral conviction remained recognizable: children who had previously spoken out in favor of a performance-based reward now also advocated it. However, they defended their point of view much more resolutely when they were allowed to claim top performance for themselves. Otherwise, it was fairly easy to persuade all children to receive the same amount.

Even then, these children seldom completely revealed the principle of fairness itself. While they may have traded one type of justice for another - performance versus equality, for example - they did not resort to selfish arguments such as "I get more because I'm bigger" or "Boys like candy bars more than girls, and..." I am a boy." There were certainly such reasons, but from children who had previously spoken out neither for the principle of equality nor for the principle of achievement.

Incidentally, older children were more likely to believe in a principle of justice than younger ones. And in practice they also held fast to it, even when this was to their disadvantage - which suggests that ethical ideals can have an increasingly stronger influence on behavior with increasing age. However, such a development does not take place automatically. Rather, a person must literally embrace such beliefs as an essential part of his personal identity. If someone no longer just says "I should be honest" but "I want to be honest", then the person is more likely to be telling the truth in everyday life as well. How a person uses moral principles to define himself is his moral identity. Moral identity determines not only what someone thinks is right, but also why he believes he is doing the right thing himself. This distinction is essential to understand the range of moral behavior. To be clear, the basic moral ideals are shared by practically all members of a society; but they differ in their determination to act upon them.

Here is an example: Most children and adults will speak out in favor of not allowing harm to be caused to others. But only a few people believe at the same time that they should consequently take action themselves, for example against the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It is precisely those who are most likely to donate money or join aid organizations. For these people, concern and the desire to help are at the center of their self-image and their life direction. You feel a responsibility to act in this direction, even at high personal costs.

The psychologist Anne Colby from the Carnegie Foundation in Princeton (US state New Jersey) and I carried out a study on well-known personalities who were particularly distinguished by their longstanding charitable and social commitment. In these people, moral identity and moral concern were very closely linked. We wrote at the time: "People who define themselves through their moral goals often perceive moral problems in everyday life, and they tend to think that these concern them themselves." Nevertheless, we did not recognize in these morally outstanding people a higher level of moral judgment in the sense of Kohlberg. In their ethical ideals, too, they corresponded entirely to the rest of us.

On the other side are the many who recognize moral problems as well, but do not perceive them as part of their own lives. This does not affect their self-esteem very much: Kosovo and Rwanda seem so far away and therefore insignificant that they can easily push the news about them aside. Even an event that is literally closer to you can appear to be something that only concerns other people - for example, when a horde of children in the neighborhood bullies another child. Anyone who feels this way does not suffer from the fact that he does not do anything against such conditions. Even if we generally assume the opposite: moral knowledge alone is not enough to drive morally motivated action.

The moral identity develops according to a certain, general pattern.It usually develops in late childhood, when the child becomes able to judge themselves and others by stable personality traits. Younger children use action-related skills and interests to define themselves ("I am smart", "I like music"). Only later do they begin to describe themselves with moral qualities. With the onset of puberty, they usually start using adjectives like "fair", "generous" or "honest".

This can go so far that young people define themselves primarily through their moral goals. When asked what gives meaning to their lives, they mention caring for others or efforts to improve conditions in their social circle. A study of teenagers by Daniel Hart and his colleagues at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which they carried out in the city of Camden, New Jersey, is instructive. Parents and classmates should name students who are particularly socially engaged. The majority of the children referred to, the scientists then found, based their self-identity on moral convictions. However, they did not score higher than their peers in the tests of moral judgment. This study is also noteworthy insofar as it took place in an economically underprivileged milieu in which adolescents are often considered to be extremely endangered.

But the importance of moral identity also seems to be evident in young people who break the law. Social psychologists Hazel Markus from Stanford University in California and Daphne Oyserman from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor observed that juvenile delinquents have an immature self-image, especially about their future, a crucial aspect of a young person's life. These teenagers cannot imagine becoming a doctor, getting married, voting or getting involved in the church - that they would take on some role that embodies clear values.

How does a young person acquire moral identity - and why not sometimes? When it arises, it grows slowly, in a thousand small steps: through social feedback; by observing what others are doing that excites or repulses you; by thinking about what has happened; through cultural influences - in the family, in school, from religion, from the mass media. The weight of the many individual impressions and impulses is different in each individual case.

Most children initially orientate themselves towards their parents. As Diana Baumrind of the University of California at Berkeley pointed out, an "authoritative" style of upbringing is a better guarantee of good moral development than a "permissive" or an "authoritarian" one. Authoritative means: specification of consistent rules and fixed limits, but also encouragement for open discussion, clear communication with the reasons for the rules, which are changed if this is justified. A permissive parenting style, on the other hand, generally avoids regulations; and in the case of the authoritarian, the rules appear arbitrary; the child only learns that the parents want it that way.

As opposed as the permissive and authoritarian parenting styles are in many ways - both favor similar psychological and behavioral patterns in children, which are characterized by low self-control and a weak sense of social responsibility. Because with none of them do children experience the atmosphere that is favorable for their development, consisting of realistic expectations of them and structured help from the environment - in other words, the challenge of broadening their moral horizons. The permissive and authoritarian styles can even inhibit the development of a moral identity, for example by promoting certain attitudes that are not very useful to it, such as the conviction that moral standards are apparently set from outside. Seen in this way, a person's morality often has its roots in childhood experiences.

Older children also increasingly come under influences from outside the family. Nevertheless, the relationship with the parents usually has the greatest influence on moral development, at least as long as the child still lives at home. The way father and mother comment on a shoddy song or a bloodthirsty video usually sticks in the mind long after the text and film have faded. If dubious television programs give the parents cause for clear, responsible feedback, they may ultimately bring even more profit than harm.

Parents can also especially support their children in their development by promoting the right kind of friendships and camaraderie. Dealing with people of the same age can spur children on in their moral development, because they learn that their own ideas and social reality often diverge. For example, during our tests with the candy bars, we had the impression that some of the children gained a new, deeper understanding of justice in the discussion about right distribution. We were able to confirm this in a follow-up study: These children now demonstrated a greater awareness of the rights of others. Those who had benefited most were those who had actively participated in the dispute, i.e. had both expressed their own opinion and listened to the others.

Then in puberty, peer group experiences are critical to self-identity development. Certainly - the urge to find and consolidate oneself often leads to the formation of cliques: there are "insiders" with whom one identifies and "outsiders" whom one laughs at or even despises. As long as this does not get out of hand, more mature friendship patterns usually develop from it later. But what can parents do when their child is excluded? Above all, they should convey to him that raw, callous behavior says more about the perpetrator than about the victim. If the youngster manages not to take the harassment too personally, it will not leave permanent scars.

Some psychologists are currently investigating - from a sociological perspective, so to speak - how it affects the moral development of children, whether different social influences are mutually consistent or not, i.e. whether parents, teachers and the mass media take the same position on certain situations or take a contrary position . For example, a study of 311 adolescents from ten American cities and districts, carried out by Francis A. J. Ianni of Columbia University in New York, found that young people from environments with consistent expectations of them behaved highly cooperatively and showed little anti-social behavior.

In this milieu, for example, everyone considered honesty a fundamental value: teachers did not tolerate cheating; Parents would not let lies get away; in team competitions, coaches did not call for rule violations for the sake of winning; and people of all ages expect openness and honesty from friends.

In many other communities, however, moral attitudes were very inconsistent. The main concern of the coaches was to win, and parents complained when the teachers reprimanded their children for cheating or sloppiness. In such circumstances, children soon realize that they need not take moral messages very seriously.

Ianni calls the norms of behavior of the morally integrated communities "youth charter" and means a kind of statute or constitution for the youth. Whether a city offered its young people a reliable moral compass did not depend on ethnicity, cultural diversity or socio-economic status, nor on geographic location or the number of inhabitants. These insights are now being tested in social work that seeks to improve communication between children, parents, teachers, and other influential adults.

Unfortunately, American society seems to offer young people less and less such a base. Adults don't necessarily intervene even when they see trouble. Parents are often so preoccupied with their own affairs that they hardly know what their children are up to. They grant them more independence than ever before, and they also expect it, indeed even demand it. Teachers, in turn, feel that it is none of their business what the children do outside of school. They fear reprimands or even legal action if they interfered with personal or moral problems of students. Neighbors feel the same way: They feel that it is not their place to get involved in other family matters, even if a child is in trouble.

Moral identity is the key source of moral commitment throughout life. According to all that psychologists know, their development is promoted if the social influences, despite their diversity, point in a unified direction overall. Children need to hear a message enough times for it to stick. For pluralistic societies this means that they have to find a sufficiently broad base of shared ideas in order to redeem their debt to young people: to convey to them generally accepted norms.


The child's social world. By William Damon. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1990.

Life instead of being lived. How we give children orientation. By Norbert and Gabriele Münnix. Walter-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1998.

The means of moral education and their effectiveness. From Siegfried Uhl. Klinkhardt, Bad Heilbrunn, 1996.

The Youth Charter: How Communities Can Work Together to Raise Standards for All Our Children. By William Damon, Free Press, 1997

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 10/1999, page 62
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is included in Spectrum of Science 10/1999