5 Steps of Moral Development (and What’s a Parent To Do?)

One day my 5-year-old daughter came to the top of the stairs and called my name, “Daddy.” She sounded somewhat panicked. I knew that she and her sister were both upstairs so I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Daddy,” she called again. When I arrived at the bottom of the stairs, she said, “We don’t hit in this house, right?!” I was not sure if she meant that as a question or a proclamation. Either way, I voiced my agreement. “Right. No hitting.” She calmly returned to her room. To this day I do not know why she asked that question. It did reveal that she was beginning to internalize some of our rules though. That is a goal for all parents—to help our children move from externally influenced moral decisions to internally influenced moral decisions. We want them to internalize a moral compass based on our family values. Internalizing values does not happen overnight. It takes time, begins at a very young age, and seems to follow the sequence noted in the chart below. The chart also notes just a couple helpful responses for parents.
Externally controlled behavior: Children need adults to prompt appropriate behavior
·         Want to do the right thing to avoid punishment.
·         Fear authority and do not want to be punished
·         Let your child know the consequences of their misbehavior. Making the consequences clear will help deter them from engaging in misbehavior.
·         Follow through with the consequences you establish, even if your children look hurt and sad. And, they will look hurt because they hate punishment.
·         Children become more invested in behaving appropriately in order to receive a reward.
·         They behave well for a reward.
·         The most powerful reward is a parent’s praise and attention. Children love to hear their parents praise and encouragement.
·         Take the time to acknowledge and praise specific things about their work and play.
·         By simply acknowledging the specifics of their positive actions you encourage them to continue that positive behavior.
·         Statement as simple as “I appreciate how carefully you put that dish away” makes your child feel valued and encourages them to continue that positive behavior.
·         As a child moves through the elementary school years, their ability to see things from another person’s viewpoint improves.
·         Since they can see the world through another person’s eyes, they become more invested in maintaining the affection and approval of parents and friends.
·         In the preteen and teen years, this desire for approval in the eyes of others increases the power of peer pressure.
·         Teach your children how their behavior impacts other people. Keep your lectures short and point out the consequences of their behavior on them and others.
·         Maintain an open dialogue with your children about values and moral ideas. Create an environment that is open to discussion about different ideas while explaining the benefit of the values your live by.
·         Encourage confidence in their ability to think through moral decisions and their strength to stand by their decisions.
·         Children begin to understand that rules help maintain order…order in the house, order in the school, and order in the community.
·         They realize that rules keep society safe and healthy. Without rules, communities would have chaos.
·         Rules are necessary and good. Even more, rules are for everybody.
·         Fairness and equality become important. What is “good for the goose is good for gander.” Right and wrong is very concrete, black and white.
·         This is a great time for parents to calmly discuss and reinforce the reason for various family rules. This will help your children internalize the values and moral ideas of your family.
·         Live by the rules yourself. Your child is watching. They learn more through observation than lecture, so walk the talk.

Internally controlled behavior

·         Teens learn to think more abstractly about the benefit of rules.
·         They learn that some families have different rules than the ones you live by in your family. 
·         Maintain an open dialogue with your child about family values and rules.  
·         Explaining the reasoning behind the rules while living them out yourself will help your child internalize the rules.
·         Discussion may also lead to some compromises. Be open to appropriate compromises when they arise.
·         Through this process, your child will be making conscious choices about which rules they will choose to live by. They will be internalizing values.

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