How Do Kids Learn About Morality? Role-playing

Posted by Beetle B. on Sat 27 August 2016

How do children learn right from wrong?

There used to be 2 theories:

  1. Nature: Nativist (be it through God or evolution)
  2. Nurture: Empiricist (Minds are blank slates at birth)

A third theory arose:

  1. Rationalism: Kids figure out morality for themselves. This differs from nurture in that they are not taught.

In this book, a Rationalist is someone who believes reasoning is the most important and reliable way to obtain moral knowledge.

In one study, kids are shown a glass with water filled up to a certain level. All this water is then poured into a narrower glass. The level is now higher, but the amount of water is the same. Can the kids recognize that the volume of water is unchanged?

Generally, kids under 6 or 7 will say the second glass has more water. More importantly, it was futile for adults to explain that the volumes were equal!.

However, when given a lot of opportunity to play with glasses and water, the kids figure out for themselves that the volumes are equal.

Also, kids under 3 (or 15 months) find the concept of taking turns to be alien. And usually not teachable. But they can and do learn it for themselves as they age, even if no one teaches it. They learn it by playing games. Usually more effective than adults teaching it.

The Six Stages of Development

Kohlberg developed the six stages of moral development (in 3 levels):

Level 1

If an adult punished someone, that someone must have done something wrong. [1]

Level 2

Understanding and manipulating rules and conventions. This includes petty legalism. They still value the rules and the authority, but they learn to maneuver within it.

Level 3

Post-puberty: Independently think about authority, justice, etc. Value honesty above the rules, but now justify breaking them in pursuit of higher goals (usually still in pursuit of justice).

The Liberal Consensus

Once Kohlberg presented this theory, the psychology community used it as a “hammer”. He himself used it to scientifically justify a secular liberal moral order. He found that the most “morally advanced” kids were those who most frequently had role playing opportunities.

Egalitarian relationships (i.e. with peers) invites role playing. Hierarchical relationships (parents, teachers, etc) do not. This is true not just for the social world, but even for the physical one (e.g. the glass/water experiment).

So he advocated eliminating religious teaching (inherently hierarchical).

[1]I find this in many adults: How often have we heard “Well he must have done something wrong to be punished.”?

tags : trm, morality, Kohlberg