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About Moral Development in Adolescents

By Kay Ireland ; Updated June 13, 2017

A variety of theories exist when it comes to deciding just when and where adolescents begin their moral development. Something as important as the moral values that they will enact later in life while making decisions, passing judgment and creating relationships can be influenced by something as small as a schoolyard confrontation, or gentle parental guidance. Each psychologist or expert has a different theory on moral development, all which can help shape your child's moral identity.

Theories About Moral Development

The Piaget Theory of Moral Development is centered on the concept that simple games can shape and reveal a child's moral compass. By laying down rules that can be easily broken, a child's true moral development takes place. Younger children can explain that the rules are to be followed because someone told them they are to be followed. Young children can not comprehend both their own well being and the well being of someone else. Older children can explain that rules are to be followed so that the entire group can play the game, demonstrating that as moral development occurs, children begin to understand the greater good.

Lawrence Kohlberg worked to enhance Paiget's work in moral development by further exploring the development seen between younger adolescents and older adolescents. Kohlber noted that moral development changes as children age. A small child follow rules to avoid harsh consequences. Older adolescents have much more of a "what's in it for me?" mentality, and only follow rules, if they are able to reap something from it. This reveals and important point in moral development, when children stop avoiding consequences and work toward reward instead.

Carol Gilligan, a female therapist, discounted Kohlberg's theories, as they were only tested in boys. She focused on the moral development in girls, boiling it down to two important facets -- justice and care. As female adolescents grow and developed, they reach a turning point in their development when they stayed close to their mothers and were less likely to understand unfairness to themselves, but were able to exhibit fairness and justice to others. Through the development of their sense of justice, female adolescents become more like the caregivers; unable to turn someone away in need. This characteristic is still true as they pas through to adulthood.

Nature and Nurture

Moral development in adolescents includes both a nurturing facet and a nature facet. Some of the moral development occurs as the adolescent watches others around him. However, a nurturing environment can still yield an adolescent who is lacking in moral development. This is because a child's own autonomy plays a large role in moral development.

When Moral Development Begins

According to work by Kohlberg, moral development in adolescents occurs on a certain time line that accounts for the child's learning at home, in school and in society. Children younger than 10 tend to view rules and regulations as a fixed absolute. They follow rules closely to avoid being punished, and don't break the rules intentionally. Children over the age of 10 or 11 begin to consider judgments based on intentions, rather than end results. This means that they will judge more harshly someone who was doing a bad thing and harmed no one when compared to a person doing a good thing and harming someone. Kohlberg found that between the ages of 10 and 12, adolescents are most likely to encounter this shift in moral development.

Other Influences

Parents might be especially interested in the moral development of their adolescents. Some parents feel that the development of the moral compass in their children is a reflection of themselves as parents. Unfortunately, not all moral development is completed through parenting. Outside influences like friends, media and experience will also play a part in the development. Parents, educators and advisers to adolescent can take into consideration moral development when establishing rewards and consequences for certain actions.

Rite of Passage

Moral development in adolescents is not an exact science, and there is still much to learn about the development. While some experts differ in their opinion as to how the moral compass is developed, all agree that it is an important rite of passage as children grow, evolve and take their place as members of society.

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