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Early Childhood Development: Piaget Childhood Development

Updated on March 06, 2013

Psychologists and theologians have long discussed the complex subject of moral development, though it was not studied scientifically until the 1950s. Till then, the dominant view towards it was the socialization view, according to which moral development was a matter of learning and internalizing the norms of the society, and behaving in conformity with them. (Rest, 1979).

Jean Piaget not only rejected this belief, but was among the first psychologists who put moral development in children into research and proposed a theory about it. (Shaffer, 1996). According to Piaget (1932) moral development in children means the changes in how they reason regarding moral issues, their attitude toward law breaking, and their behavior when facing moral issues. (Grusec & Kuczynski, 1997). It is thus the process through which children develop proper attitudes and behavior towards other people in society, based on social and cultural rules and laws.

Jean Piaget Stages Of Development:

"The Moral Judgment of the Child” (Piaget, 1932) was one of the first works concerned with the morality of children rather than adults, and outlined a systematic account of children’s moral development. (Harris, 2002). Piaget believed that children’s cognitive development is responsible for their moral reasoning, which is an active rather than passive process by which they conform to society's norms of right and wrong.

All moral development emerges when individuals construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of interactions with their environment. (Piaget, 1932, 1965).

Piaget saw the beginning of a social order and morality even in children’s simple games and role play and based this moral theory on two lines of research: Firstly, he observed children of different ages playing marbles, and examined their understanding of the rules of the games by asking questions.

In addition, he interviewed children regarding acts such as stealing and lying by presenting them with moral dilemmas, each consisting of a pair of stories. Piaget asked children which of the characters deserved to be punished the most, trying to find out not only their answers but the reasoning used to arrive at them. (Harris, 2002)


Stages of Moral Development:

Based upon his theory of cognitive development, Piaget stated that moral reasoning takes place through-out stages that children pass at certain approximate ages. (Piaget, 1932). The first stage is known as the premoral judgment and starts from birth till 5 years and coincides with the pre-operational stage of Piaget's cognitive theory. According to him, children begin in a "heteronomous" stage of moral reasoning, because their cognitive structure is characterized by egocentrism i.e. young children have a poor conception of other people's consciousnesses and are unable to take into account their own view of things with the perspective of someone else’s.

As a result, it is impossible for them to have a sense ofmorality or understand the concept of rules. Their thinking is based on how actions affect them or what the result of an action is i.e. consequences rather than the motivation behind them. Moreover, since children’s first exposure to social rules are commands handed down by parents or other authority figures, they view them as fixed laws. This relative powerlessness of young children results in a strict adherence to rules and obedience to authority.

The second stage is called moral realism, which lasts from the age of 5 to 10 years and corresponds to the concrete operational stage of Piaget’s cognitive theory. Children at this stage understand the concept of rules, but still see them as external and rigid. They evaluate wrongdoing in terms of its consequences, not intentions, and obey rules mainly because they are there. They recognize the sanctity of rules and that they have to play by them and cannot make up new ones to a game.

Piaget called this, "moral realism with objective responsibility" i.e. being concerned with outcomes rather than intentions of an action or valuing the letter of the law above the purpose of the law. Moral realism is also associated with a child's expectation that punishment automatically follows acts of wrongdoing. (Harris, 2002)


The third and final stage is called moral relativism and begins at about 10 years onwards. It coincides with the formal operational stage in Piaget's cognitive theory, during which children are able to carry out complex thought processes, first on concrete examples, and then abstract concepts.

Children now develop a more flexible view of moral issues and begin forming their own internal morality, which is different from external rules. They progress to an "autonomous" stage of moral reasoning, where they learn that rules are social conventions governed by mutual consent and that it is permissible to break or alter them without being punished. (Harris, 2002). They start to critically examine rules, determining whether they are fair or not, and applying them to other situations based on mutual respect and cooperation. Actions are now evaluated more in terms of their intentions and motives behind them than their consequences. In short, there is a shift in the child's cognitive structure from egocentrism to perspective taking.

Thus according to Piaget, morality and moral development cannot be inculcated into children through dictates of parents and teachers; it is through active relationship and involvement with peers that children develop moral concepts (Nucci, 1997).

Piaget concluded that the best moral learning comes from cooperative decision-making and that schoolteachers must encourage moral development by providing students with opportunities for personal discovery through problem solving situations.


Critical Evaluation of Jean Piaget Stages of Development:

Piaget's theory of moral development is not as well known as his cognitive theory, but it was a great influence on Kohlberg's theory (1976) which is more widely known. Another contemporary adaptation of Piaget's theory for moral development is found by DeVries & Zan (1994) while works like A Theory of Justice (Rawls, 1971) are also almost solely derived from Piaget and Kohlberg.

However, Piaget's theory has been criticized for certain limitations. One objection concerns gender differences in moral judgments, where Gilligan (1982, 1986) argues that Piaget constructed his theory on the basis of interviewing only boys and then studied girls from a male perspective. Piaget’s writing itself shows he interviewed both genders, though he maintained that girls have a less developed legal sense than boys. However, as Turiel (1998) says, this does not imply Piaget considered girls to have less advanced moral reasoning than boys as he saw girls as more cooperative and innovative with rules than boys. (Harris, 2002)

Another criticism is that Piaget’s account of moral development was based on semi-structured interviews, which depend largely on a child’s verbal capacities and rely on the assumption that cognitive development determines moral reasoning (Harris, 2002).

Also, narrating moral dilemmas to children made it more likely for them to focus on consequences, so that when stories were presented on video, younger children were much better able to consider intentions (Chandler et al, 1973). On the other hand, Armsby (1971) carried out investigations with moral dilemmas and found that, although younger children had some concept of intent, they still preferred to judge in terms of consequences.


Some psychologists also criticize that Piaget's theory has under-evaluated children. Bussey (1992) shows that children after the age of 3 are able to consider other people’s intention and purpose i.e. they are able to tell that a person who has intentionally made a mistake is guiltier compared to one who has no intention in his wrong action, even if his wrong is greater. Besides, games of marbles do not represent a child's entire perception of morality.

Also, Piaget’s theory holds true only if one uses the exact same tests he used, but are proven incorrect when different tests that are more sensitive to an infant's responses or geared towards a certain age group are used. (Gleitman, 1995). There is disagreement too over whether morality develops in stages or levels. Kohlberg himself modified Piaget’s work and estimated that the process of attaining moral maturity took longer and was more gradual than Piaget had proposed. ( Killen, 1995).

Cultural psychologists argue that Piaget’s theory is western oriented and that instead of looking for universal moral stages, we should focus on moral diversity. It must be remembered that moral development of children in non-western cultures differs from those in other cultures, because of different concepts of justice and ethics.

Moreover, Piaget implied that all morality comes from socialization, but evolutionary psychologists maintain that a basic sense of morality is innate. Lastly, Piaget’s approach to morality is more or less abstract, unlike a more naturalistic observation of children’s behavior within their own families and familiar setting. (Dunn, 1987).



Piaget’s theory of moral development attempts to understand how human societies have come to constitute and recognise law and how they construct rules that are valid and obligatory. Not only does his work hold continuing relevance in current debates, but has helped further research in this field. Piaget's theory also helps us to understand children's use of rules and other aspects of morality such as their understanding of lying and justice.

However, moral development is a multi-dimensional subject, dependent not only on cognitive and social factors but individual differences, motivations, reasoning and emotions. Hence, all these different factors should be considered in order to have a complete understanding of the subject.

Jean Piaget Stages of Development:


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    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Well done, very fine review of Piaget's work.

    • Mighty Pen profile image

      Mighty Pen 4 years ago from U.K.

      Thank you for reading krilco. Appreciated.

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