Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What social science tells us about children's moral development

Twenty years ago, William Damon (The Moral Child, 1988) offered this set of principles for guiding a comprehensive approach to children's moral education. They were, he claimed, based on current social scientific knowledge.

1. Simply by virtue of their participation in essential social relationships, children encounter the classic moral issues facing humans everywhere: issues of fairness, honesty, responsibility, kindness, and obedience.
2. The children's moral awareness is shaped and supported by natural emotional reactions to observations and events.
3. Relations with parents, teachers, and other adults introduce the child to important social standards, rules, and conventions. Moreover, these relations generate knowledge and respect for the social order itself.
4. Relations with peers introduce children to norms of direct reciprocity and to standards of sharing, cooperation, and fairness.
5. Because children's morality is shaped (though not wholly created) through social influence, broad variations in social experience can lead to broad differences in children's moral orientations.
6. Moral growth in school settings is governed by the same developmental processes that apply to moral growth everywhere.

I suggest that Damon's principles are still valid and that research in recent decades – including new discoveries about neurological function – have supported rather than supplanted these basic principles. Note that relations and emotions constitute the medium of moral development as Damon understands it.

In other places, I have written about the centrality of relation to educational efforts and have begun to focus more recently about educating the emotions with a focus on fear as a feature of educational experience. That may explain why I think Damon has it right.


dougH said...

I can really appreciate this approach to moral education. It gives a great description of all of the influences that come into play when talking about a child's moral development and what kinds of values a student learns through different interactions.

The only thing regarding this approach is that it may be too general. For example, being a professional educator, I have to ask is there a certain way to have relations with students in order to convey these certain values. I know I am able to teach students basic rules and practices that will be useful in the students' moral life. But, I have to ask myself is there something else I should be doing on top of everything else I am already doing?

Bonnie Hoover said...

It was eye-opening to me to consider that children who have limited social interaction are likely to develop a different moral orientation than those who lead more active social lives. I have noticed this in my nephew who is home-schooled. Although he certainly does interact socially with other children, his interactions are much less frequent than students who go to school. Therefore, he may have less opportunity to develop skills that involve fairness and responsibility to others, etc..
His moral insight is more likely to develop from interaction with his parents and siblings.

Mark said...

The idea that moral development is discovered by children through their everyday interaction with the world makes complete sense to me. When I consider what constitutes morals, nearly everything that comes to mind (character, integrity, honesty, etc.) related to how one thinks or acts toward another. This being said, it makes perfect sense that children, and adults for that matter, learn about morals through interaction with others. There is little doubt in my mind that this undefined curriculum is the most powerful way that we teach morals in our schools. Yet the analytical side of me wants to more clearly define what it is that is taught as this is the only way that we can identify what we are doing a good job with and what needs modified, in other words, "separate" instruction in conjunction with the unwritten curriculum.

Debby Lynch said...

It is true that kids face moral issues everywhere, but as they often learn through example, and their examples (at home with parents, peers, and the media) may not be ideal role models, I do believe that schools have the moral responsibility to be a major positive influence in their lives. We teachers have been given the task by our community to prepare these children to be productive members of our society. And although Math and Science and Reading, etc. are of utmost importance to our society if a person knows all of the facts but not a good way to put them to use we have failed. Theodore Roosevelt said, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

lzarfos said...

Relationships with peers is well known to be a powerful influence on the behavior of children and adolescents. THerefore it makes good sense to realize that daily peer contact of these children will have a direct impact upon their moral development.That is why it is crucial for educators to focus not only on the academic demands of the public school system but the social interactions of the students that they teach. Unfortunately, though s teacheracknowledge the power of peer influences, they are not trained in the specific of how to shape and mold the moral development of their students. Because social interactions are indeed a powerful way to promote moral growth, more attention should be given to specific interventions that teachers may implement in their classrooms to assure that moral development is moving in a positive, not a negative direction. Teachers today are not only unequipped with the tools necessary for appropriate interventions in this area, but teachers are being forced to focus primarily upon the teaching of content material.

Tamara said...

After hearing all of the moral developmental theories that were laid out for us yesterday, I went home and wrote my response to the theoretical question for our snapshot. It is interesting to me that the eclectic theoretical pieces I pulled together from yesterday are somewhat nicely outlined in Damon's set of principles. I completely agree with him that it is the social relationships are central to a child's moral development and that it is the adults who illustrate and model for children initially the rules and standards of morality. Adding to these standards is the peer influence that becomes vital during adolescents when children are trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for in life. The old adage of "it takes a village" to raise a child comes to mind since all of the social experiences a child has go into shaping the morals and values they will utilize throughout life.

Giovanna said...

There is a saying that it takes a community to raise a child. This idea of relationships and emotions tie right into this idea of children's moral development. Small communities where relationships are apparent between parents, children, teachers, and neighbors seemed to have made child development a joint task. Communities created an enviornment of social influence where children could easily observe adult and peer interactions. This is not to say that their communities were perfect. I think so many factors in the home, community, and culture have changed so much that this almost supplemental need for emotional education should be a priority. Still the question is...How? Damon seems to have, if I understand correctly, a notion that through an eviornment it happens naturally, and without much control by the self. That enviornmental and social encounters create a child's moral.

Carpe said...

What is most fascinating about Damon's comprehensive approach is that every single one of these principles comes back to relationships and emotions. Whether it is relationships to parents or peers or even teachers, how these relationships are built and what basic principles that they are built upon are the foundations of interactions, relationships, and connections in schools that all contribute the moral education of students.

Without the relationship- or more importantly- the connection, education is hollow. Granted, some educators argue that school is about academics or standards or benchmarks, but no matter how you shake it, schools will always be about relationships.

How many times have you heard a student say, "That teacher hates me," or "I can't work in that group because Billy Bob is there," or "They won't let me sit with them at that table." Bottom line: relationships.

Building, developing, nurturing, and expanding all of the various relationships in the school setting not only enhances the academic experiences, but it also cultivates the inherent moral education in schools.