How Do Children Make Moral Judgments?

How do children make moral judgments?

One of the most complicated parenting problems is how to teach children the difference between right and wrong. This is partly because adult role models need to set a consistent example in this case. First, we need to understand how children form moral judgments in the first place.  Before we teach them the difference between right and wrong.

Until recently, people thought that young children were incapable of making good moral judgments. This was because they supposedly would not consider certain factors, such as intentions. But research has shown that children are indeed capable of evaluating right and wrong. And this in a much more mature way than previously thought.

In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, known for his theory of cognitive development, explained that children go through three stages of moral reasoning as they mature. Psychologists who followed him have also studied how moral development takes place and how children think about right and wrong.

To study moral judgment, Piaget presented children with short stories. After collecting their answers to various scenarios related to morality, Piaget concluded that children are unable to consider a person’s intentions when assessing the morality of their decisions. Instead, he says, they focus on the actual events that occurred.

Decades later, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg came up with his own theory of moral development. He presented children with a few moral dilemmas to determine how they thought about right and wrong.

According to Kohlberg, children between the ages of two and ten store the associated punishments and rewards in their heads when making moral judgments. If an act is punished, the act is bad. However, the answer to how children think about right and wrong is not so simple.

Boy looking out to sea and reflecting on his moral judgments

Do children value intentions?

Do children really not take intentions into account? More recent studies show that Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories about moral development are misleading. They show that if the researchers emphasized the characters’ intentions throughout the story, children would certainly incorporate these intentions into their judgments. Especially if this is done with the help of pictures and toys.

One reason intentions should be emphasized explicitly is that it is difficult for children to remember every detail. If you don’t ask them to remember the intentions behind a person’s actions, they’re basing themselves on the most recent aspect of the story: the outcome.

But to what extent are the intentions and results important for children? Research on both children and adults suggests that one’s judgment of an intention can change. Often dependent on the outcome of the action.

Our beliefs about the intentions of others depend on whether the result of the action was good or bad. If an action produces negative results, both children and adults are more likely to think it was intended.

Right and wrong based on indirect consequences

Why are children and adults more likely to say that actions with negative outcomes are intentional? One possible answer has to do with the violation of norms. Philosopher Richard Holton said that our intuition about other people’s intentions is explained by whether the act violates or upholds a norm.

If it violates a set standard, we think the act is intentional. On the other hand, if it upholds a standard, we don’t consider it intentional. We think that people effortlessly maintain standards, but consciously try to violate them.

This is known as the Knobe effect. A peculiar asymmetry in the assignment of intentionality to the foreseen effects of people’s actions. All things considered, bad results are believed to be intentional, but good results are not.

Baby who cries and has not yet formed moral judgments

How children make moral judgments

Recent studies suggest that children’s moral judgment is more complex than we thought. The first few studies that used moral dilemmas were flawed because they were too complex. In addition, researchers have not fully understood children’s cognitive abilities.

More recent studies say that children are more like adults in their moral judgments. They tend to align one’s intentions with the results of one’s actions. That is, when questions are asked clearly and in a way that children can understand. 

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