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Moral Development in Children: The Piagetian, Biological, and Psychodynamic Models

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is Managing Editor for Novellas & Serials at LVP Publishers.


Morals define what is considered “right” and “wrong” behavior within society, providing a guide for individuals to follow. It is what many believe the main underlying and unifying principle that allows for improvement in man and civilization at large (Black, 2014). While we have developed our own ideas of what we accept as “right” and “wrong” once we become adults, gaining the ability to define these concepts in terms of specific behaviors, this is not a concept we are born with. As children, we must acquire this concept as we develop (Black, 2014).

There have been many theories and explanations as to how this process occurs. This has resulted in a great deal of thought and discussion among members of numerous fields including philosophy, theology and psychology. Throughout human history, communities have been concerned with the type of person that a child will become. Will they will develop into genuinely “good” individuals who benefit society or “bad” individuals, who are detrimental to their community?

Scholars have addressed this topic for over two thousand years and, over the past century, a wealth of data has been amassed concerning the development of morality in children and adolescents (Malti & Ongli, 2014). However, arriving at this point has been a rocky journey. Theories often conflict and those on which our ideology is based on do not always cover moral development in a comprehensive manner. This means while there may be basic ideas about what influences moral behavior in our children some explanations may be inaccurate or simply too simplistic and lacking in practical substance to be of much use.

Lack of Adequate Psychological Explanations

Until more recently, almost no comprehensive theories had come from the field of psychology. That was largely because traditionally, psychology has always avoided studying anything that was loaded with value judgments. Concerns were centered around the possibility that value judgments would cause misinterpretation of research data or that different investigators might interpret the same findings in entirely different ways, reaching completely disparate conclusions. This meant the theories that were developed were too general to provide practical applications that would make a difference in child development. There was also the fear that researchers would develop their projects with an inherent bias based on their own value judgements and beliefs. Thus, such research was deemed too likely fraught with error especially study results that were unable to be replicated (Black, 2014).

There is undeniably a degree of difficulty involved in trying to be unbiased regarding theories that involve concepts such as "good" and "bad", or “right’ and ‘wrong,” especially when attempting to come to agreement on universal definitions of such terms. So, long after other fields had begun to delve into the murky waters of researching how morality develops, this highly significant aspect of human life which functions as one of the primary precursors of human interactions and relationships went largely uninvestigated in the field of psychology. The lack of theorists willing to focus on this area prevented theoretical models from being generated until Piaget included aspects of morality in his Theory of Development (Piaget, 1971)

Piaget’s Theory of Development and Moral Reasoning

As part of his early work, Piaget studied how children play games and abide by or break the rules, along with the reasons they do so. He determined that the concept of right and wrong was a developmental process. Younger children, he believed, were stricter about keeping exactly to the originally stated rules with no exceptions allowed. Older children developed the ability to add more abstract rules as the game went on in order to allow the game to remain fair.

According to Piaget, children between ages five and ten years old make moral decisions strictly based on what an authority figure dictates is right and wrong. Rules must be followed exactly and cannot be changed even in the smallest detail. Rules are followed due to fear of punishment. Doing what one is told is not truly a moral decision since one can be told to do horribly immoral things and if there is not ability to see the difference there is no moral reasoning taking place. Around age 10 Piaget believed that children base moral decision making on social cooperation. This is simply an expansion of the previous stage, only now children believe that rules given by society must be followed as they are for the social good of all. The child in this stage begins to see that different people have different moral rules but the child is not yet able to formulate their own individual idea of morality.

It is around this time, according to Piaget that children also develop a sense of fairness though again not from their own experience and reasoning process but because they believe that what society dictates must be fair. During the early teen years, the child’s idea of morality develops into ideal reciprocity which is based on empathy. This is where an adolescent tries to understand the decisions others make by gaining knowledge and comprehension of the circumstances involved in the decision. Empathy can only occur when the child possesses the ability to take another’s perspective or see things from another’s point of view. Perspective taking is critical for social awareness, moral judgement and the ability make decisions based on what is fair for everyone.

Without the ability to take another’s perspective a person will have only their own best interests in mind, unconcerned about what effects their decisions and actions have on others. Piaget developed several tasks to test a child’s perspective taking skills such as one which asks the child to relate what they from their view where they are sitting and to then relate what the person opposite them is seeing. While perspective taking normally takes place at a much younger age, incorporating it into Piaget believed that this level of ideal reciprocity was a fully matured stage of moral reasoning and decision making (Piaget, 1969). However, subsequent research indicates that morality continues to grow and develop into adulthood and that Piaget overestimated the age at which children begin developing their own sense of morality (Black, 2014).

Piagetian Perspective Taking Task

Biological Theory and Moral Development

Biologists historically have discussed genetic selection as the factor which leads to morals developing in the human race over time. They believe moral qualities are passed down based on whether or not they serve positive evolutionary functions. (e.g. Alexander, 1987) . Those who founded the biological model believed that all human behavior and functioning has an innate underlying cause, generally inherited factors including but not limited to genetic material. The lack of knowledge of a physiological cause, these scientists asserted, did not mean it didn’t exist, merely that we had not discovered it yet. Thus, early biological theories asserted that moral behavior was largely physiologically based despite not having the technology to determine the exact cause. Thus delving into the mind in terms of thoughts and feeling especially in children was deemed to be of no use.

Later biological viewpoints often incorporated cognitive components with physiological, genetic and neurological factor as they guided moral development and reasoning. For example, it is commonly acknowledged that there are critical periods for brain growth, during which there are intense social experiences, which occur early in life. It is during these times that neural circuitry for basic human functioning is established. It is believed that these critical periods are also important for the development of morality including moral reasoning and moral decision making.

While it is believed that genetic expression is particularly important in moral reasoning it doesn’t act alone but is determined by a backdrop of the environment, maturation and actions. At the same time, while this model underscores the inherent factors involved in moral development it also recognizes man’s ability to change. Physiological predispositions cannot overcome the power of a mind made up, having determined a certain life course, habit or behavioral pattern is undesirable including. This includes moral behavior patterns (Piaget, 1971).

Sigmund Freud Father of Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud Father of Psychoanalysis

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Psychodynamic Model and the Moral Unconscious

Subsequent to the Biological Model, a group of clinicians and theorists begun with Sigmund Freud put forth a new theory to explain moral development. The psychodynamic model was at odds with the biological model. While those in this movement did not preclude that there were biological contributions to moral development, these theorists also believed that there were psychological precursor to the development of moral reasoning and decision making. Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego were in essence distinctions between acting rationally within a moral code and behaving otherwise. The Id is the “I want it and I want it now,” system of fulfillment. It is the first of the three systems that forms in the newborn infant who does not recognize that others exist separate from them except when they have a need to fulfill. The Superego is the conscience but considered to be over controlling of the rest of the system. The Superego is the “If you want it so badly and if it feels too good it is not appropriate and therefore you may not have it.” Whereas in traditional viewpoints on moral development, the conscience is considered to be the seat of morality, according to the Freudian viewpoint, it is as flawed as the Id. The Id and the Superego are in constant conflict. The Ego develops as a means of intervening between the Id and the Superego, getting what the Id wants but doing so in a way that satisfies the superego. Freud was not particularly interest in the child’s social environment and educational system taking them as a given. He was more interested in the mind of the child and

The basis of psychoanalytic models involves how the norms defined by community and society are internalized (e.g. Sagan, 1988). This viewpoint posits that once these norms and rules are internalized they unconsciously influence emotions such as guilt or shame. These emotions subsequently influence behavioral expression. According to this model the strength of the superego (conscience) is responsible for whether or not these values are internalized to begin with and if so whether they come to significantly influence the individual. The psychoanalytic viewpoint acknowledges the fact that biology can contribute to the development of internalized moral determinants but does not integrate it into the viewpoint as the focus is on the unconscious. This model also does not allow that conscious awareness, thoughts and experiences influence moral development or provide an in depth discussion of how the unconscious of primary caretakers can affect the process. The defense mechanisms, projection and reaction formation, or the manner in which the child internalized the parents as the ego ideal, are used to prevent oneself from losing their primary love objects.

Summary and Conclusions

In conclusion, there have been numerous models attempting to explain moral development. Piaget developed a framework that was based on discrete stages. This meant that stages were ordered in a way that was stable such that a previous stage must be achieved prior to entering the next stage. Additionally stages were believed to be primarily based on the level of cognitive development of the child and could not usurp level of though and reasoning. While they gave some consideration to factors such as biology, genetics and environment this was largely cursory without a complete explanation of how such factors played into their theories. Other models of moral development included the biological model which focused on genetic influences and physiological predispositions dismissing purely psychological explanations, and the psychodynamic model which focused on the influence of the unconscious as it directed moral behavior.


Black, D. (2014). The social structure of right and wrong. Academic Press.

Eysenck, H. J. (1960). Symposium: The development of moral values in children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 30(1), 11-21.

Malti, T., & Ongley, S. F. (2014). The development of moral emotions and moral reasoning. Handbook of moral development, 2, 163-183.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.

Piaget, J. (1971). Mental Imagery in the Child: A Study of the Development of Imaginal Representation. London: Routledge and Kega Paul Ltd.

© 2017 Natalie Frank


Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on May 19, 2017:

Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you found the article informative. Please let me know if there are specific topics you'd find interesting or helpful for me to write about and I'll do my best to cover them. Please come back soon!

The Writer from Earth on May 15, 2017:

Glad to find this hub --- very informative. Looking forward to the next articles you are planning on.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on February 24, 2017:

Thanks for the feedback! I've been down due to computer issues but hopefully am back up and running now. I appreciate the comments and will looking for your next article as well!

Natalie on February 08, 2017:

I am backed up as usual despite the best intentions for new articles but work on it as soon as I can. I look forward to reading your next article as well!

Sakina Nasir from Kuwait on February 08, 2017:

That's great! I would love to read more on this topic. Your work is very detailed and informative. Keep it up! :)

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on February 07, 2017:

Hi Sakina - Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I'm hoping to get two more out on the same topic. The original article grew to unmanageable size for a single article so I'm working on getting the rest cut down and making them stand alone articles that complete the concepts started on this article. Thanks again and I hope you continue to read and enjoy what I write.

Sakina Nasir from Kuwait on February 06, 2017:

Great hub! You have covered this subject with much detail and finesse. Loved it. Thanks for sharing! :)

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