All parents want their child to grow up to be a good, kind person who treats others with respect and has a strong moral integrity, but most aren't sure how to give their kids a strong moral foundation. While some theories argue that morals are innate, others say that kids don't really understand morals until their teen years.

Piaget's Theory

Jean Piaget, one of the earliest psychologists to focus on moral development, determined that morality is a developmental process, according to Larry Nucci, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago 1. He found that younger children don't grasp the concept of moral reasoning, but they act according to rules and punishments. Piaget explains that young children have an egocentric view and lack empathy. They know it’s wrong to lie because, if they do, they will get in trouble. As children get older and begin to understand others' emotions and perspectives, they develop moral reasoning abilities. Older children understand that lying might hurt someone's feelings or be disrespectful. As kids grow, they are also better able to understand the concept of fairness and apply this to moral decisions.

Kohlberg's Theory

In the 1970s, Lawrence Kohlberg identified 6 stages of childhood moral reasoning. At the first stage, children are responsive to rules only because they want to avoid punishment. At Stage 2, according to Nucci, kids follow rules because of self-interest and might break the rules if it's in their self-interest. When they reach Stage 3, children start to understand what is right in terms of what people expect, and they follow the rules because they want to be a "good" boy or girl. At Stage 4, kids start to define what is right and wrong in terms of laws and norms established by society to keep order. Stage 6 is a more theoretical phase, which involves total empathy and doing right for the sake of fairness, not to uphold social order, and Kohlberg believed that many people never reach this stage.

Domain Theory

According to Elliot Turiel's domain theory, kids' moral development is not a linear path, but one that is affected by their experiences and concepts of harm, welfare and fairness. Nucci writes that Turiel also distinguished between moral rules -- ones we follow because they have effects on others -- and conventions -- rules we follow because they make society run more smoothly. For example, a moral rule would be not to hit another child, because this causes pain. A conventional rule would be not to yell in class. Younger kids can't distinguish between the two, but older ones can, and they understand that moral rules distinguish right from wrong.

Morality and Empathy

In contrast to the theories summarized above, Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, writes that children have some foundations of morality from the time they're very young. While Piaget and Kohlberg theorize that young children can't understand morals because they don't have empathy for others, Gopnik writes that babies are empathetic and can identify with others from birth. She found that 18-month-olds willingly gave others what they wanted and went out of their way to help others, both morally right behaviors that did not serve their own self interest. At 3, kids are able to understand the difference between intentionally doing something and accidents. For example, it's okay if you accidentally bump into someone, but it's wrong to push a classmate on purpose.

How to Encourage Moral Development

According to Dr. Marianne Neifert, a contributor at, parents can help their kids develop strong moral values. First, make sure that your child feels valued and loved, because this will motivate him to please you and be more cooperative. With toddlers, helping them sort out and understand their emotions can help them build empathy, which leads to morally right behaviors. Instead of just punishing for the wrongs, praise your child when she does something admirable. Share stories with good moral lessons with your child. Overall, the best way to teach good morals is to exhibit them yourself. Kids learn best by observing. You can't expect your little one to tell the truth if she watches you lie to Daddy.