The Effects of Honesty, Empathy, and Higher Order Thinking on Moral Development

moral development






As I began to research the topic of moral development, unbeknownst to me, was enough information to write multiple books (hence why it’s been done).  Although the topic is incredibly situational, I came to believe that moral development comes down to having a few traits instilled in a powerful way and at a young age; honesty, empathy, and as Psychologist Dr. Garbarino calls it, higher-order thinking.  He stresses the importance of teaching our children how to look beyond themselves and identify the ways in which their actions affect others.  By teaching a child what it means to be empathetic (or putting themselves in another’s shoes), alongside teaching the value of honesty in relationships, the child is already learning higher-order thinking.  The most vital part of instilling this type of thinking is that it enables a skill that can be used in situations other than which the skill was learned, meaning the child will hopefully make future decisions that positively impact others and themselves.

Moral development cannot be broadly generalized once one takes into account the role of gender in the development process.  The expectations we have for a specific gender to act a certain way can be dangerous toward the child’s happiness.  We tend to nurture and baby females while teaching our males to be tough and manly.  Dr. Carol Gilligan, a major researcher on the topic of moral development, found that because of societal variations in the raising of girls versus boys, girls learn to see hurting others as immoral much more readily than boys.  Boys tend to focus on reaching justice where as girls learn to be concerned with maintaining relationships, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Regardless of gender, children should feel their thoughts and emotions are protected by adults, otherwise they will start experiencing fear at a young age.  The fear constructs a wall within the child causing a toxic situation where they turn to themselves or to their peers to fill the void.

So how do we prepare our children for success regardless of their gender?  It is extremely essential for a child to have multiple positive influences (i.e. teachers, family members, and friends), but we cannot always control the actions of others.  Given this lack of control over our child’s environment, we can at least attempt to strengthen the relationship between our children and ourselves to promote positive moral development.  Here are a few things to practice:

#1. Accountability is key:

It is too often that I see parents who turn the other way when their child’s actions are not necessarily reflective of good moral behavior.  I can assume for many that this is from the sheer exhaustion of raising children; however, not holding your child accountable can have detrimental effects on their moral development.  By holding children accountable, I do not imply going down the extreme authoritative route, rather instilling empathy by discussing the potential implications of their actions on others.  They need to be able to take blame for their own behaviors and know that there will be consequences for those behaviors.  As the adult, you need to stick to those consequences!

#2. Praise good moral behavior:

Praise is one of the toughest balancing acts to accomplish.  How do you know if you are giving your child enough praise to boost their confidence, yet being honest enough with them to teach them how to be humble?  Praise is particularly important when your child reaches a goal that they set out to reach, or when their actions reflect putting others needs before their own.  However, excessive praise can be harmful.  Picture your child practicing an instrument and as they continue through a practice session they are progressively getting worse, possibly out of laziness.  Instead, try saving the unnecessary “that was great” statements for the times when they really deserve it.  I am not advocating being cold or aloof, but it is important to teach your children “real world” lessons by being supportive, yet honest with them.   Praise is more impactful when it is specific and the child understands exactly what they did to earn it.

#3.  Rules are changeable

Piaget, one of the first moral development researchers, found that roughly around the age of 5, children see rules as black and white.  They believe that the rules set forth by parents and teachers are absolute rather than situational.  Depending on the type of adult influence, this can instill fear in a child for bending or breaking the rules.  One thing you can do with your child is have them help you set the rules.  Bend your own guidelines just a little bit so that you can cohesively work with your child to teach them that rules are negotiable.  At the same time, the child needs to realize that they still do not have complete control, rather are an active part of the process to reach an agreement that is only in part, their decision.  If they break these rules, they will still lose privileges and face consequences.  This will create empowerment and trust between your child and you.

#4. Be proactive instead of reactive

Using phrases like, “don’t hit,” “don’t yell,” “don’t run away from me”, “no…no…no!” are not doing your child any justice.  They need to understand why they should not hit, yell, or run.  The lesson comes from pulling the child aside and stressing the dangers of these actions toward the safety of others.  The first step is realizing the moral development issues that you as an adult need to fix, usually the more challenging part.  When the child’s wrongdoing involves a moral dilemma they need to see the repercussions of their actions rather than just being told it’s wrong in order to learn empathetic ways of thinking.  Rather than punishing the child, or forcing them to apologize, we need to talk to them openly and honestly about their actions and try to advocate apologies from the heart.  When the child truly feels sorry for their actions we are instilling the higher-order thinking by helping them notice their impact on others.

In attempting to inspire lasting and positive moral lessons in your child, the first step is realizing your own moral values.  If these morals are flawed, they must be fine tuned before your child can truly reap the benefits of your actions.  When a young child can realize their actions are a reflection of themselves, and they value themselves because of the love you have given, they are practicing higher-order thinking in a way that will benefit not only them, but also their community.

#5. And finally: offer your child an example of moral development .       

The most powerful influence parents can have on their children’s lives is the example they set by how they live their own lives.  Children instinctively identify with and imitate their parents.  This psychological process has the greatest impact on a child’s moral development, more than guidance, advice, rules or prescriptions for living.  That is why it is critical for parents and adults to identify and change negative personality traits within themselves that they do not want to pass on to their children.  They must strive to be mature and consistent in their attitudes and conduct, and resist regressing into bad moods or childish behaviors (such as being irresponsible, self-indulgent or victimized).

In terms of moral development, it is critical for parents to focus on developing the qualities in themselves that have an especially powerful impact on the kind of people their children will grow up to become.  They must be careful to exhibit honesty and integrity in their interactions with others.  For example, it is common and easy to state the following: “Don’t tell your _____,” or maybe lie to get the result you want from your child.  It may seem trivial but this teaches children that it is acceptable to lie.  This also hinders the relationship that you have with your child.  By letting them see you tell a fib, you are affirming to them that it is okay under certain circumstances while also damaging the trust they have in you.  When it comes to preparing your child for their future, honesty truly is the best policy.

Parents demonstrate their respect for their offspring by developing positive qualities in themselves so as to have a positive effect on their children’s development. It is crucial that children see their parents treating others with respect and equality.  Parents are setting an equally influential example when they value their own lives. Adults who genuinely value themselves, accept their feelings and priorities, and actively participate in their own lives allow their children to develop morally and thereby teach them to live lives of meaning.

About the Author

Alexandra McKellar-Kirchoff Alexandra graduated in 2012 from UCSB with her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a minor in Applied Psychology.  She has always enjoyed studying psychology, specifically human interaction.  She is currently implementing her leadership experience through her retail management position, while at the same time, interning for Psychalive.  Her passions include writing and singing, and she aspires to get her Master’s in Sociology.  For now, she is staying busy and constantly planning for her future.

Related Articles

Tags: , , , , , ,


Genavieve Gibson

Great article Alex! Very well written and researched. In Avatar, we call it having a ‘moral compass’ and it’s about trusting that inner voice when making decision’s. Good work!

Leave a Reply