In today’s era, where children are exposed to a multitude of issues, often ahead of schedule, parental concerns about their moral development are only natural. Exploring various theories of moral development proves invaluable in comprehending how children shape their moral compass and what proactive steps parents can take. One significant theory originates from Lawrence Kohlberg, who initiated his career as a developmental psychology professor at Harvard University. Kohlberg delved extensively into the realm of moral education, drawing inspiration from theorists like Jean Piaget. He posited that the evolution of moral reasoning is a product of progressive development. Kohlberg conducted research involving moral dilemmas presented to subjects to assess their responses. In essence, Kohlberg theorized three levels of moral reasoning, each comprising two stages. These levels unfold as follows:
  • Pre-Conventional level
  • Conventional Level
  • Post-Conventional level
Within these three levels are six distinct stages of growth. To substantiate his theory, Kohlberg conducted interviews with boys aged between 10 and 16. He presented the children with hypothetical moral dilemmas and subsequently overlaid the participants’ arguments onto their cognitive development. Now, let’s delve into the intricacies of these three stages and explore the phases involved in greater detail.

Level 1: Pre-conventional level

At this stage, the locus of moral control is entirely external. Morality is primarily governed by rules imposed by authority figures, with the predominant motivation being the avoidance of punishment or the attainment of rewards. The two stages within this level are:

Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment

In this stage, moral judgments hinge on obedience and the consequences of punishment. The child’s perception of good or bad develops based on whether punishment is incurred for a particular action. The primary impetus for the child, therefore, is centered on strategies to evade punishment.

Stage 2 – Self-interest

At this developmental stage, children are primarily driven by self-interest. Consider the scenario where a bully is mistreating a child, and another child nearby chooses to intervene and assist the victim. At this stage, the intervening child’s actions may be motivated by the realization that failing to intervene could potentially subject her to bullying in the future. In essence, the action is propelled by a self-centered motivation, contemplating what is at stake for her in the situation.

Level 2: Conventional level

At this developmental stage, a child’s motivations are guided by adherence to social norms. The stages within this level encompass:

Stage 3 – Interpersonal Accord and Conformity

During this phase, the child aspires to be perceived as a virtuous individual, and moral judgments are consequently influenced by interpersonal harmony and conformity. The opinions of others hold significant sway over the child’s actions, making external validation a key motivator.

Stage 4: Authority and Maintaining Social Order

At this developmental stage, children accord significant importance to authority and exhibit a strong inclination toward preserving social order. The underlying motivation is rooted in adherence to rules and laws, recognizing their role in maintaining societal harmony. Observably, at the conventional level, there is a discernible shift from self-interest to a focus on the social system. Individuals now actively engage in upholding rules established by institutions such as schools and parents. This dual objective serves both to garner social approval and uphold the essential fabric of social order.

Level 3: Postconventional or principled level

This is the final stage of development, where the focus moves even further. The focus is no longer on one’s society but on some universal principles and values that define morality. These values, of course, are applicable to all situations and to all societies. The stages involved at this level include:

Stage 5: Social contract orientation

Here, behaviour is determined by the concept of individual rights. It is believed that laws must be consistent with individual rights and the interest of the majority.

Stage 6: Universal ethical principal orientation

This is the final and highest stage of moral development and functioning. It is to be noted that as per Kohlberg’s theory, not all people may reach this level. At this stage, individuals choose a particular action or abstain from it since they listen to their conscience. A big part of decision-making in this stage involves considering the perspective of everybody who could be affected by a decision.

Applications of Kohlberg’s Theory

Understanding Kohlberg’s theory is essential as it can guide parents, teachers, and caregivers and give them an understanding of the development of the child’s moral character. Guided by this theory, when children are younger, parents can focus on obeying rules, while as they grow up, they can teach them about social expectations and, finally, listen to the voice of their conscience.

Criticisms for Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

However, Kohlberg’s theory is not without its criticism. Some of the reasons the theory has been criticized include:
  • Critics have pointed out that while the theory of moral reasoning might work well, it may not always translate into moral behavior.
  • The theory also does not consider cultural biases. Children may live in different cultures, such as an individualist or a collectivist one, which might cause different moral outlooks.
  • There is also an age bias in the study since the subjects are all children under the age of 16. The theory does not, therefore, consider several dilemmas that may face people in later life.
  • Similarly, critics have also noted a gender bias where all the subjects in his sample were male.

To Sum Up

Kohlberg’s theory can serve as an illuminating guide for both teachers and parents, aiding them in steering a child through the various stages of moral development. At Pragyanam, we place significant emphasis on fostering a child’s moral development. Moreover, we impart a diverse set of life skills, equipping children to navigate life’s highs and lows resiliently. Importantly, these lessons are tailored to age-appropriate contexts, ensuring that whether it’s a student seeking school admission or one on the verge of graduating, distinct methodologies are employed to instill these crucial values.