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How is morality developed?

by Ines Wurbs

What we commonly understand as conscience is also summarized under the term morality. Kant already pursued this question.

Kant spoke of moral disposition as conscience. We judge good or evil with the law of reason, and with the judgment of conscience, we condemn or acquit ourselves. Of course, there is a lot of modern research on this, but it is essentially based on Kant.

Theory of moral development

“Compassion is the basis of morality”

Arthur Schopenhauer

First stage: 5-8 years

Children still have difficulty considering both points of view in a moral dilemma in the first stage. It still overlooks the intentions of the other quite often. Children often try to avoid punishment and are afraid. They also act on these motives and decide in such a way that they avoid punishment and the authority figure is satisfied.

Second stage: 8-12 years

Children are slowly beginning to understand different perspectives. However, their own interests are still very much in the foreground. Children also accept this from their counterparts. The eye for an eye principle still prevails, so to speak. I do you a favor, and you do me a favor.

Third stage: 12-14 years

At this level, other people are important, especially family and friends. Children this age follow rules because they’ve already learned what it means to be respectful, trustworthy, loyal, or even just kind and helpful. Children at this level are as interested in the well-being of their family and friends as they are in their own. “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Fourth stage: 14-16 years

Societal rules are now being understood better and better. In this phase, in particular, it is important for us that rules do not apply according to how close you are to yourself, but apply to everyone equally. Duties, laws, and justice are now held in particularly high esteem.

Fifth level: from 16 years

Laws and rights are viewed flexibly at this level. While fair trials are important, so is justice in interpreting and changing laws. It is questioned and the well-being of the individual and society is weighed up.

Sixth and highest level

A person at the highest level of moral development acts according to self-chosen ethical principles of conscience. The rules apply to society as a whole without restrictions. Values ​​are often very abstract, and respect for values ​​and the dignity of each individual are paramount.

Why is morality developmental?

parenting style

A loving upbringing in which parents share ideas with children and set reasonable expectations is very conducive to reaching the next level of moral development. A secure attachment promotes the development of conscience. For information about secure binding, see this article.

Especially with teenagers, it is important to keep talking to them about moral issues and to encourage them to behave prosocially. It is also important for teens to support them here and to keep explaining, collecting information, and discussing it.


Studies have shown that higher education makes it easier to reach the 4th level. It can be assumed that this will stimulate young people, in particular, to think about social issues that go beyond personal relationships. In this way, entire cultural groups are included in the consideration.


If children have the opportunity to exchange ideas with friends, they quickly realize that cooperation can be successful. So, among equals, the same applies. Before that, they “knew” mostly only authorities and the “power from above”. Even if we don’t raise our children in an authoritarian manner, children perceive rules as “coming from above”.

Friendships are especially important for the development of conscience. Friends tend to trust each other and therefore make decisions that are good for both of them. This then also promotes the development of the conscience.


The environment also influences our moral behavior. Our behavior is influenced by where we are and how the “atmosphere” around us. This was nicely demonstrated in Zhong’s study“ Good Lamps are the Best Police ”.Source: Zhong et al. (2010): Good Lamps are the Best Police

Tips to encourage the development of morality in children:

  • A secure bond between you and your child encourages the development of morality. 
  • Empathy: explaining the child’s actions. So, what did your child do, and what did it do to you? If the child feels guilty, this is quite normal, help your child to deal with you constructively. Show him alternatives for next time.
  • Praise morally favorable behavior.
  • Be a role model for your child
  • Give your child age-appropriate freedom to make personal decisions
  • The better your child can speak, the easier it is for them, especially kindergarten children, to understand moral issues such as arguments or sharing.
  • The more sensitive and cooperative parents and children deal with each other and the more positive emotions and experiences they have together, the more stable the development of conscience.


Morality is not innate. It is developing and there is a lot we can do to ensure that we and our children continue to develop. A safe framework in which to explore and try out and an open attitude are crucial for this.

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