One of the most difficult questions about parenting is how to tell children the difference between good and bad. This is mainly due to the fact that parents are seen as role models and have to set an example that their offspring can follow. Before they can teach their children the difference between good and bad, however, they must understand how their children make moral choices.
Until recently, it was believed that younger children were unable to make moral judgments. Because they cannot recognize certain factors, such as a firm intention. But research has shown that children can tell the difference between good and bad much better than was previously thought.
In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, best known for his theory of cognitive development, stated that children go through three stages of moral thinking during their maturity. Psychologists who followed him have also studied how moral development works and how children think about right and wrong.
To study moral judgment, Piaget presented the children with short stories and then asked them about them. Piaget applied her answers to different scenarios and also included morality in his consideration. From the results he concluded that the children are unable to take into account a person’s intention when making moral decisions. Instead, they just focus on the real world.
Decades later, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed his own theory of moral development. He introduced moral dilemmas to children to determine how they feel about good and bad. According to Kohlberg, the moral choices made by children ages 2-10 are closely related to the punishments and rewards that come with them. If an act is punished, it is bad. If it’s rewarded, it’s good. However, the answer to how children really choose between good and bad is not black or white.
Are intentions important to children?
Are children really not considering intention? Recent studies show that Kohlenberg and Piaget’s theories of moral development are incomplete. More recent studies show that children are very likely to include intent in their judgment, especially when researchers used pictures and toys to help children better understand the situation.
However, it is difficult for children to remember details, so it is especially important to point out an intention. If they are not advised that there may be an intention behind a person’s action, they will therefore base their judgment on the outcome alone – as earlier work suggested.
But to what extent are intentions and outcomes important to children? Research with children and adults shows that the assessment of an intention can change based on the outcome of the action. Our opinion about other people’s intentions depends on whether we rate the outcome of the action as good or bad, regardless of age: If an action turns out badly, both children and adults think that the intention behind it was bad must be. In principle, this also applies to actions with a positive result, but it is less pronounced.
Right and wrong with indirect consequences
Why do children and adults judge an act that is perceived as bad so quickly, but are more reluctant to evaluate laudable actions? One possible answer has to do with the violation of norms. The philosopher Richard Holton said that our intuition about other people’s intent is based on whether the action violates or complies with a norm. If someone violates a set norm, we assume that the act was intentional. We think that people follow norms with little effort, but act consciously when they violate them.
This is also known as the Knobe Effect. This describes the tendency to judge the bad side-effects of an action to be intentional, while the positive consequences of an action are not intended.
How children make moral choices
Recent studies show that children’s moral thinking is more complex than we previously thought. The first studies that used moral dilemmas were very complex and therefore extremely difficult to interpret. In addition, researchers at the time understood the children’s cognitive abilities less well than we do today.
Recent studies show that children follow the same tendency as adults and make intentions dependent on the results of their actions.