The Psychology of Morality and Raising Moral Children

09/01/2010 01:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If we want to learn how to have a moral inner child and/or how to raise morally healthy children, we need to consider that this has been one of the most significant aspects of human life. Morality has been waiting for a long time for psychology to touch it. More and more of us want to learn how to be moral beings and how to raise our children to be moral and evolve their sense of morality.

We have many extracurricular activities, such as sports, music, art, etc., all of which are great and positive, but there is no course in school or outside of it to teach our children how to be more moral, compassionate, kind, open-minded, nonjudgmental, honest, responsible, forgiving, tolerant, forgiving, accountable, good citizens and respectful of self and others.

The reason behind this seems to be that everyone expects parents to take care of the emotional and spiritual well-being of the child while school is supposed to take care of the intellectual aspect. But parents may not always know how to do this since they, themselves, may be struggling with how to evolve in that aspect and wonder how to keep up with the continuously growing world.

To understand the concept of moral value and what it is, we should refer to Kohlberg's definition of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg spent a great deal of time researching this subject and how people evolve in their sense of morality. This information can be used as a wonderful tool. When we have the tools and are aware, we can decide how far we want to go.

Kohlberg reported that there are stages which individuals go through to grow a sense of moral value. Moral development has three main levels--pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. The first stage is guided by consequences of actions and is what is developed when we are still a child. The child learns and sees that every action has a reaction and learns that what we do will come back to us. This first level of moral thinking is generally found at the elementary school level. There are two stages to this first level. During the first one which individuals behave according to socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by authority figure (e.g., parent or teacher). This creates a sense of obedience that is enforced by some form of punishment. The second stage of this level is characterized by a view that right behavior means acting in one's own best interest.

At the conventional level there is a desire to help others. One starts to learn that in order to have a self-interest, one must learn to function in a way that is beneficial to others as well. If this is encouraged and the child is placed in situations in which s/he can help others and see the good feeling that it creates, s/he is encouraged to do this more and more. A seed is planted, and with proper nurturing, it will become completely fruitful. This level of moral thinking is more common in our society and that is why Kohlberg called in "conventional." As with pre-conventional, there are two stages to this level. At the first stage, individuals seek the approval of others and will act in such a way to gain that approval. This is the stage in which individuals learn to obey the law and respond to duty.

The last stage is post-conventional in which the child's moral values should evolve into self-chosen actions that are based on individual's well-informed principles. These principles are rooted in the values that the individual has accumulated throughout her/his life and are not based on other people's beliefs, needs and wants, but based on her/his own center place. This third level of moral thinking is one that Kohlberg believed is not accessed by the majority of adults. This level has two stages. The first stage is an understanding of the concept of social mutuality and a sincere concern for the welfare of others. In the last stage of this level, there is a respect for universal principle and the demands of individual conscience. While Kohlberg believed in the existence of this last stage, he could never get enough subjects to define it.

Kohlberg believed that most individuals could move through these stages one stage at a time and not skip stages. For example, individuals cannot move from a stage of selfishness to the law and order stage without passing through the "good boy/girl" stage. He also reported that individuals can only come to an understanding of a moral rationale one stage above their own. So, the best way to go is to go one step at a time. Therefore, it is important to present the stages when the individual is ready and encourage his/her development in that direction. He also believed that most moral development occurs through social interaction.

We are the ones who are responsible for our full growth and giving life to another, therefore, we have to make sure we do all we can to bring up a healthy, functioning children that growing in all four areas, mentally (including intellectually), emotionally, physically and spiritually. Growing in one area without the other may result in inbalance, and in some cases, a tarnished sense of integrity or not reaching wholeness.

The seed of morality, compassion, forgiveness and all the other positive tools we need can be planted during childhood. However, if we lacked these during our childhood, we can give this to ourselves. We need to learn to not get into the habit of over- or under-stimulation, but to stick to something, building both quality and quantity with it rather than changing from one to the other, to learn to enjoy the simple things in life, to know what to do and how to focus with all the distraction around us, to challenge our traditional ways of thinking and see if they are still serving us productively, to learn to step out of our comfort zone and make responsible risks, to learn how to learn, to learn how to plant the seed of positivity and get rid of the negative baggage, to use what we have to the best we can, to learn that in order to gain one must learn to give not out of obligation and force but out of love and joy, to learn that to have a sense of inner freedom one must learn to have a disciplined mind, to learn to respect and value our being and not let it be violated and that only then we can respect others, and to learn that everyone has something to offer if we only let them and become open.

Finally, people, including children who have a strong sense of moral value have better self esteem, are less influenced by peer pressure, and are emotionally healthier. They also have more goals in life. We need to plant the seed, nurture it, and let it grow. As always, I will add one of my poems to the article to add a touch of art to the psychology. Enjoy.

This may be a start of a familiarity
With an open heart and sincerity

People you didn't know may become alliance
Those you thought friends, an act of defiance

Paths cross each other every split second
You have to be aware of it and reckon

Life is a gift, heavenly and harmonious
With clear intentions not anything felonious

Roya R. Rad
Self Knowledge Base & Foundation
A nonprofit dedicated to public education