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.

17 comments:

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.

Anonymous said...

Sure our environment and the people in our lives influences our morality, but not entirely. Some believe we are a product of our environment, however we all have an inner spirit or drive that influences our choices and beliefs not matter the environment...R.

tammy said...

It is reassuring that Damon feels that moral development is a result of relationships/emotions. In trying to remember back to how I "learned" my own morality, I certainly am at a loss to remember. So it just sort of happens through life lived. Sadly, not all kids have the kind of relational/emotional environment that fosters morals. It is also interesting that a wider experiential base allows for a broader moral base. As teachers, we can forge those relationships with our students that might help form their moral fiber, but we each have the kids for 35 minutes a day. With so many different moral backgrounds coming at them in so many different relationships, I hope they can cull what's right for them from it all.

April Spoerl said...

I agree that moral development is directly related to the relationships children have with others both in and out of the school environment. The relationships we have with our students and the relationships they have with their peers allow teachers the opportunity to assist children as they grow morally. As an educator of young children I would love to have the opportunity to discuss with other teachers pratical strategies to use in my classroom to model and practice skills which would help my students along the journey of moral development.

Anonymous said...

I would be curious to ask what social scientific knowledge this was based on, however, I do agree with him. I especially like all of the variations that Damon included on what affects the moral growth of children. Relationships and environments are different for each student, thus the variations in their moral development. If we know that children have such greatly different life experiences, how do we as teachers find the time to really get to know our students and begin to understand why they behave the way that they do.
diane

Rick L said...

Demon is right on target with his principles to moral development. Children encounter moral decision making throughout the day. With this in mind, it is impossible for a school not to include moral education in lesson plans. In fact, I would say that a teacher is doing a disservice to the student if they do not include it.

Using Damon's approach, moral education does not stop with parents and teachers. All members of society have an obligation to provide that education--regardless of the perceived involvement with the child. In other words, we are always modeling appropriate moral behavior, which the child will see and maybe mimic. Using Demon's approach, it sheds new light on the saying "always be on your best behavior!"

Anonymous said...

I do agree with Damon's set of principles for guiding a comprehensive approach to children's moral education. It is true that through relations and participation a child will be exposed to morality, but will that child implement these into their own life is up to them. We as educators can only expose a child to morals but we cannot make the child live by them.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Lisa said.. I don't agree that a students moral development is only a result of their relationships /emotions. I believe it is a combination of relationship/ emotions and your inner self or spirit. That inner spirit helps influence our many beliefs and choices in life.

Anonymous said...

I guess I didn't realize that so many influence the moral development of children - either directly or indirectly. It seems to occur naturally, to say the least. Influences, either positive or negative, seem to be responsible. For the school, there is a need to understand the whole emotional-based structure, and to help the child develop this awareness in socially acceptable ways.

Marika said...

Thanks for writing this.