Thanks to a hilarious, potty-mouth pirate, I had the opportunity to observe the perfect example of preschooler moral deliberation. Let me explain. While my four-year old daughter enjoyed watching a real pirate perform a comedy and magic routine at a birthday party, I studied the children’s responses to the silly pirate.
The first time the potty-mouth pirate told a joke that used the word “poo-poo”, the children giggled with restraint, cupping their hands over their mouth, while looking around for their parent’s assumed disapproval. As the pirate continued to tell potty jokes, the children eventually stopped looking for their parent’s approval, forewent restraint, removed their hands from their faces and began hysterically laughing with enjoyment at the typically taboo words.
*For more advice, explanations and recommendations, read Moral Development in Toddlers as the there is much overlap between the stages.
While preschooler and kindergartner moral development is very similar to that of toddlers, the main distinction is that the former possess a greater capacity for self-control and self-realization. In a sense, their consciousness is more finely tuned and reflective, thus giving rise to more organized behavior.
A four to six year-old’s capacity to understand and control themselves is very relevant to how their caregivers view moral development. Moral decision making requires a certain level of consciousness and ability to exhibit self-control as culpability in our culture is connected to one’s awareness and control over their own behavior. For instance, it would be unreasonable to punish a baby for dropping your smart phone in the bath tub, while it is slightly more reasonable to discipline a toddler, but completely reasonable and necessary to discipline a preschooler/kindergartner for the same action.
Dr. Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley is a leading expert of moral development in children. She believes that children are more conscious than adults because of their lack of inhibitory control over their sensory intake. In short, this means that young children take in more information than they can process, while adults are more selective of information intake and processing.
While babies and toddlers lack much inhibitory control, preschoolers and kindergartners possess more highly developed brains and nervous systems. Thus, they also possess more inhibitory control over their sensory intake. You can witness the effects of young children’s lack of inhibitory control by their need to nap after visiting a crowded mall or exciting social-gathering. Of course, by Dr. Gopnik’s theory, a five-year old may be considered less “conscious” than a baby, meaning that the older child would have more control over the processing of their conscious experience.
Past moral developmental theorists, like Jean Piaget, didn’t even begin theorizing about moral development in children until a child reached the age of four. And while contemporary scientists, like Dr. Paul Bloom and Dr. Karen Wynn of Yale, have found evidence that even babies are innately moral beings, morality becomes a more overtly conscious function around the age of four.
This understanding can help confirm parental suspicions that around the age of four, a child can, and should be, held somewhat responsible for their moral decision making. A child of this age can knowingly lie and will be conscious of the fact that lying is wrong, though they might not always be aware of their lie. In addition, a four to six year-old can empathize when they harm others, will feel remorse and expect to be held accountable for their wrongdoing. And, again, the child might not always be aware of the harm that they caused. Therefore, it is important that all mistakes be treated as learning experiences at this young age in which moral awareness is blossoming.
The black and white moral construct is alive and thriving in preschoolers and kindergartners. Moral rules and guidelines are very meaningful and important to a child around the age of four to six years. Of course, a child of this age is also becoming more keenly aware of when and how moral rules are broken. They will make a point of telling you when another child does something wrong and will label them as “bad.”
*“Mom, I heard Jonathan say ‘butt’ at school. That is really bad word. Jonathan is a bad boy.”
At the same time, a preschool and kindergarten child may notice when moral rules do not apply to someone. These gray areas of morality will be confusing, but children of this age will ponder and test repeatedly to understand morally gray areas.
How to Nurture Moral Development
#1: Maintain Illusions
Maintain the illusion that a universal moral system exists, while occasionally explaining gray areas of morality to your child. Limit exposure to mature “gray-area” content until you feel your child is emotionally secure and can handle contemplating how to apply moral rules apart from their set system.
For example, do not say “butt” yourself if you decide that you do not want your child to use this word. Double standards are too confusing still and while it can be fun to stir philosophical inquiry in your child, they still crave order and need to know that they firmly grasp the rules that govern the world.
#2: Consistency is Key
Consistently hold your child accountable when they behave poorly. They are aware of their own lies and bad behavior, but like toddlers they will still have a difficult time accepting that they made a bad choice. The difference between a toddler and preschooler is that a four to six year old is more likely to be conscious of their guilt and able to connect it to their bad choice, while a toddler may truthfully hold claim to their innocence and not understand, at times, why they are being disciplined.
#3 Being Little is Important
Preschoolers and kindergartners are not big kids. It can be tempting to allow a preschooler or kindergartner into the world of adults by taking them to more mature movies, not censuring your adult conversations, allowing them to play mature video games, etc… While four to six year-olds can fain maturity at times, their occasional bursts of big kid behavior do not mean they are a big kid. They still need a morally black and white world where the bad guys are bad and the good guys are always good. Exposure to too much gray can cause anxiety and stunt their moral development.
#4: Work in Progress
Just because preschool and kindergarten aged children can be held accountable for their behavior, this does not mean that harsh discipline (e.g. spanking, emotional detachment, harsh scolding, shaming, etc…) is acceptable or necessary to morally train a child. Harsh punishments can actually cause more immoral behavior.
Sticking with the same discipline methods as toddlers, raise your behavior expectations slightly for four to six year-olds. For instance, if you expected your toddler to ask for a toy instead of taking it out of his friend’s hands, I would add that a preschooler and kindergartner can ask “please” and say “thank you” in addition to not stealing toys. It is also critical that parents offer children plenty of time to work though moral situations during free play instead of when the stakes are highest.
Moral development is a process and it is not limited to children. Even as adults we continue to develop morally. Let’s grow together as a family, sharing in our successes, helping in our failures and patiently loving and accepting one another as we learn to live better, more moral lives.