The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth
by William Damon

The blurbs on the back cover praise this book for being an elegant summary of the scientific research on the moral development of children. If these blurbs are correct, then the research on the moral development of children has a long way to go before I can consider it to be scientific. The surveys and experiments described are so flawed in their designs, and the inferences drawn from them are so unwarranted, that the only conclusion I can draw from them is that the researchers involved and those who refer to this research as scientific have little, if any, appreciation for science. The designs share common flaws: (1) they oversimplify the problem to be researched by failing to consider all the possibilities, (2) they rely on the subjective opinions of the researchers as to which results will provide data to support which of the possibilities. Both of these design flaws show that the researchers and those who accept their findings have similar biases and that they are unaware of their biases and unaware that their test subjects may not have the same biases. This unwitting lack of objectivity and imagination shows up again in the analyses of the results. The data, as poor as it is, can still be interpreted in different ways that the researchers are too ignorant and too prejudiced to even consider. I say all of this even though I do not dislike the conclusion they reach. In fact, the conclusions are generally things that I would like to believe are true. My point is that these bozos have failed to give anything better than anecdotal evidence to support their conclusions.

Given that the book is not based on real scientific data, its main virtue is that the principles it espouses conform to common sense. The so-called leading scientists in the field of children’s moral development are slowly creeping up on knowledge that parents around the world have been employing for many centuries. The author, William Damon, in spite of being a professor of education at Brown University and in spite of being a respected psychologist in the field of social development and in spite of being an unquestioning believer in democracy and public education and in the need to respect the “legitimate” authority of the state at all levels, still has some intelligence and some reasonable insights into how children develop their moral sense. He presents a reasonable description of the developmental stages that children normally go through as they learn about morality.

Although his opinions are based on faulty empirical data, they can often be supported by a priori logic. So they are basically sound. He offers fewer and less effective anecdotal examples than did the Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophers, and his prose is generally not as good as theirs, but I see a logical development in his argument and a somewhat more systematic approach in this book that helps to clarify the subject. Here are his major “findings” and recommendations expressed, wherever I could find them, in standard English rather than pseudo-scientific sociology talk:

“morality is a fundamental, natural, and important part of children’s lives from the time of their first relationships. It is not a foreign substance introduced to them by the outside world of people who know all the answers.” (1)

“Morality arises naturally out of social relationships, and children’s morality is no exception. Wherever there is human discourse and interpersonal exchange there will follow rules of conduct, feelings of care, and sense of obligation.” (2)

“Because children do not directly wrestle with the identical moral issues that consume our own energies, we may fail to recognize their special moral concerns and may even assume that morality does not occupy as important a part in their lives.” (2)

“Out of the rich mix of relationships, possessions, obligations, and communicated values in a child’s early experience grows a living childhood morality with its own vital characteristics.” (3)

“For although childhood morality is shaped and expressed through the particular features of the child’s social world, it revolves around concerns that arise everywhere in human moral discourse. As children play out their relationships with friends and family, they experience many of the same moral sentiments that we recognize in ourselves.” (3)

“Positive feelings like empathy, sympathy, admiration, and self-esteem, and negative feelings like anger, outrage, shame. and guilt are all essential parts of our moral reactions to situations. When strongly experienced, they provide pressing incentives to act in accord with our standards.” (13)

“Moral emotions also contribute to the long-term development of moral values. Children naturally experience many moral feelings in the course of their social engagements. As children reflect on these moral feelings, they question and redefine the values that gave rise to the feelings. Sooner or later the redefined values are tested through conduct, all of which gives rise to new feelings, new reflections, and further redefinitions of the child’s moral code. This is the lifeblood of the moral development process.”

“Most scholars believe that moral sentiments are a natural component of a child’s social repertoire, and that the potential for moral reactions is present at birth.” (13)

“Empathy means reacting to another’s feelings with an emotional response that is similar to the other’s feelings.” (14)

“In order to resonate to another’s feelings, a child first must recognize accurately the other’s feelings. ... It follows that the child’s empathic responses, which rely on perspective taking for their cognitive base, increase in frequency and scope only as the child develops some cognitive sophistication. ... it is chiefly perspective taking, the cognitive component of empathy, that changes with age. ... for effective moral action, the child must learn to identify a wide range of emotional states in others. Further, the child must acquire the ability to anticipate what kinds of action will improve the emotional state of the other.” (13-14)

“what is remarkable about human morality is the tendency of humans to establish the most effective constrains inside themselves. ... One does not need to be caught in the act in order to experience intense shame or guilt.” (21)

“Empathic discomfort turns into guilt when one experiences the sense that one somehow caused the other’s distress.” (24)

“When children become cognizant of others’ distinct inner feelings--around age three--they can become guilty about hurting those feelings (rather than only about hurting the other’s body or possessions).” (25)

Moral Emotions

“Although children have natural emotional reactions to moral experiences, there is much that children must learn about how to manage these reactions. First, children must learn to direct their moral emotions towards effective social action. Second, they must learn to modulate their emotional reactions. raw, primitive emotion--however morally sensitive--is a reliable guide for neither judgment nor conduct.” (121)

“There are dangers of all kinds in failing to learn how to productively modulate one’s moral emotions. At the one extreme, one may subdue--or not nurture--one’s emotions to the extent that they are no longer recognizable. The result is an overall moral insensitivity, leading to a muted sense of shame and guilt and a diminished sense of empathy. At the other extreme, one may allow one’s moral emotions to run out of control. Such excess moral emotionalism can take many aberrant forms. One is a debilitating guilt that can never be satiated. A common example is the ‘existential’ or ‘survivor’s’ guilt that many successful people feel.” (121)

“An empathic response arises when one person accepts the reality of another’s distress, and a guilt response arises when one person accepts responsibility for unjustly harming another.” (26)

“We may also experience strong feelings when we observe another person acting morally or immorally. In the case of moral behavior on the part of another, we feel admiration, awe, relief, or joy. In the case of another’s immoral behavior, we feel contempt, fear, outrage, confusion, discouragement, or more generally, a persistent state of anxiety.” (27)

“When the observed other is close to the self--as with a parent or a sibling--the response to a good deed might be pride, to a bad deed shame. When the observed other is more distant, the child might feel respect for the good deed, contempt or outrage at the bad deed.” (28)

“These emotions provide a natural base for the child’s acquisition of moral values. As such, they both orient children toward moral events and motivate children to pay close attention to such events. These feelings provide the affective energy that motivates children’s moral learning.”

“... They do not provide the substance’ of moral regulation--the actual rules, values, and standards of behavior that child must come to understand and act upon.” (28)

“The early moral emotions provide a ready-made affective structure upon which a child can build a set of deep and abiding moral concerns.” (29)

Stages of Moral Development
Children begin life as self-centered cry babies. It takes a couple years for them to comprehend that other people have separate lives, values, and emotions.

“... before age two, children generally ignore their parents’ commands unless the commands are vigorously pressed with a strong emotional overtone.” (55)

“By the second year of life children actively monitor their parents’ faces and voices for emotional signals.” (55)

“By the end of the second year, children have a firmer grasp on others’ needs and feelings as distinct from their own.” ...

But by the age of 4, some children have advanced in their moral development to the level of individualist utilitarians.

“In Murphy’s data on preschool-age children, aggressive and selfish interactions outnumber sharing, helping, and ‘kind’ interactions by a ratio of eight to one.” (48)

“Four-year-olds commonly express pragmatic concerns that, they say, lead them to share with others. Among these are their desires to avoid punishment and to be rewarded. A four-year-old may say that she shares because the consequences of nor sharing are unpleasant. An adult may disapprove, or a playmate may become angry. Conversely, generosity sometimes brings rewards: a sharing act may be rewarded by a parent or may be reciprocated by a peer.” (36-37)

“By age five, children in both India and America have enough familiarity with their culture’s codes and assumptions to generate consistent, culturally appropriate responses to moral questions.” (109)

People in many non-Western cultures such as India do not make distinctions between their society’s dietary rules, dress codes, manners, and principles of justice. Rules from these categories are mixed in a hierarchy of importance such that a particular dietary rule or principle of etiquette may outweigh a particular principle of justice, while another principle of justice might have higher priority than some dietary rules or dress-code rules. For example, Hindu children ages 8 to 10 were asked to rank 39 breaches of rules in order from the worst offense to the least serious offense. The worst offense in the list was the eldest son getting a haircut and eating a chicken the day after his father’s death. The 13th worst offense was a 25-year-old son addressing his father by his first name. The 19th worst offense was a boy stealing flowers from his neighbor’s garden after his father told him to do it.

Westerners as young as 5 years old do distinguish matters involving justice and fairness from conventions about dress, eating behaviors, and manners, and they regard justice and fairness as moral principles that are more important than mere conventions. However, as Westerners, particularly Americans, get older, they tend to reverse these priorities. “American adults, on the other hand, urge children to follow conventions (say please, pull down your shirt) whereas they often leave it to children to work out problems of fairness and aggression between themselves.” (112)

This change in attitude may result from the American education system, which is increasingly secular and morally relativistic in its teachings. Many American college graduates, especially those who have taken courses in sociology, have accepted as a fact the notion that all moral codes are merely cultural conventions, and they have lost the ability they had as 5-year-olds to distinguish between moral issues and conformity to traditions.

Five-year-old children, who up to that age may have been more influenced by their parents than by friends, tend to regard rules as permanent and sacred. But as they come under increasing influence from their friends, they learn that peers can agree to change some rules when it suits them.

“Often the child’s first occasion for experiencing this ‘mutual’ orientation towards rules is in the realm of sports and games. Here children quickly learn that rules, when equally and fairly applied, benefit everyone by enabling the game to be played with reasonable orderliness. In games, children also learn to cooperate with one another in carrying out the rules. This might mean arguing about an interpretation of a rule in a sticky situation, agreeing to change a rule where it is to everyone’s advantage, or introducing a new rule if needed.”

“The formation of friendships comes naturally to children: in fact, this is one of a child’s keenest interests as early as toddlerhood.” (73)

“The primary norm of childhood culture is reciprocity.” (74)

“Of particular significance to moral development, children’s peer relations foster a type of ‘direct’ reciprocity that is rare in most adult-child relationships.” (75)

“As a rule, close childhood friendships are based on an assumption of equality, and the desire to have such friendships strongly motivates children to adopt equality as a norm in their social transactions.” (76)

“... their behavior is often guided more by the expectations of their friends than by standards that they have learned from adults.” (74)

“... the preschooler’s sense of reciprocity does not constitute a moral duty but rather a pragmatic means of getting one’s way.” (39)

“... from time to time a child in the preschool or elementary school years may say that he shares with friends because some authority figure told him to. But this is rare.”

“... Neither authoritarian influences nor concerns about rules and expectations of adult society have much effect on children’s prosocial reasoning.”

“... But the give and take of peer requests, arguments, conflicts, and acts of generosity provide the most immediate spur. ... The day-to-day construction of fairness standards in social life must be done by children in collaboration with one another.”

“In their daily exchanges of toys and favors, children communicate a world of expectations to one another. They pressure one another to act fairly and, in the process, invent a large (often ingenious) variety of new claims to justice. These negotiations encourage children to think in increasingly sophisticated ways about what is fair. Over the course of many years and many thousands of encounters, the child’s understanding of justice deepens.”

“One of the most important moral standards fostered by children’s peer relations is truth. Children confront one another constantly about matters of honesty, communicating an expectation that friends will be open and frank with one another. This provides children with strong incentives to respect and practice honesty in their everyday transactions.” (77)

“The natural learning encounters that children provide for one another through peer interchange are effective precisely because they contain all the immediacy, complexity, and ambiguity of real life.” (43)

“In late childhood (ages 10-12), there occurs one further development in the child’s capacity for empathy. This newly emergent orientation of empathy for people who live in generally unfortunate circumstances. The child’s concern now no longer remains limited to the feelings of particular persons in situations that the child directly observes.” (16-17)

When a child comes to the realization that his actions caused injury to others and when he has the ability to imagine the emotions that others feel as a result of his actions, he can have an empathetic response to his victims’ distress which can trigger feelings of guilt and disgust toward his own actions. His memory of these pangs of guilt help to develop his conscience and can cause him to modify his future behavior.

“As the perspective-taking capacity waxes during the childhood years, children are able to act more effectively on their moral insights, thus helping others in more realistic ways.” (93)

“The child’s experiences, social influences, and natural inclinations provide the bricks and mortar that turn this moral awareness into moral character.” (50)

“Children soon learn that parents have more to recommend them than brute strength and power. By middle childhood there is an awareness of other parental virtues that legitimize their authority. Most prominent among these are their superior intelligence and know-how. Obedience is considered a sign of respect for the parent’s abilities. It also has a certain reciprocal value: one obeys not only as a necessary gesture of respect, but also as a kind of payback for the parents’ protection and nuturance.” (66)

“Towards the end of childhood, there is a growing sense that obeying parental authority is in one’s best interests because parents care about their children and have more experience than they do. But at the same time there is a growing sense of equality in the relationship. When the parent is wrong, the child has a right to disagree. At the threshold of adolescence, many children express the belief that obedience is a matter of choice, a voluntary deferral to someone with leadership qualities who cares about one’s welfare.”

“Towards the end of childhood, therefore, authority begins to be seen as a consensual relation that serves the interests of all who participate in it.” (67)

Damon distinguishes between three basic type of parents: (1) Authoritarian parents who use too much coercion on their children, (2) Permissive parents who don’t use enough coercion on their children to make them behave, and (3) Authoritative parents who use the minimal amount of coercion necessary to force their children to behave.

“Authoritative parents produce socially responsible children for a number of reasons. First, these parents support the child’s natural empathic responses by explicitly confronting children about actions that may be harmful to others, Second, they consistently enforce their commands, this demonstrating their decisive commitment to these commands. Third, the are direct and honest about their commands rather than indirect and manipulative. ...

“... They push their children to improve their behavior, and this may result in some pressure and class of will, but because authoritative parents are also communicative and responsive, they continually tailor their demands to the child’s capabilities.”

“... young children securely attached to their parents are the ones most likely to comply with family rules. These children actively seek and accept the adult’s guidance. In this sense, secure children obey voluntarily from ‘within’ the relationship, rather than out of coercion or fear.” (52)

“In contrast, both authoritarian and permissive parents shield their children from challenging stress. The former do so by limiting their children’s opportunities for exploration, the latter by not confronting their children with the adverse effects of their own acts. ... Baumrind found a similar pattern of low self-control and lack of initiative among children from both authoritarian and permissive families.” (58-59)

“The intrusion of permissive parents takes the form of a sentimental overprotectiveness rather than coercion and punishment. The child is sheltered from experiencing unpleasantness of any type, even when the unpleasantness is simply a realistic consequence of the child’s bad behavior. ... These parents intrude into their children’s school and peer relationships whenever they fear that their children may need protection from a possibly harsh experience. Although this looks like a gentler and more caring form of intrusiveness than the authoritarian mode, the adverse effects on children’s self-control and initiative are the same.” (59)

“Rather than believing that children must be shielded from real obligations for as long as possible, we need to do precisely the opposite: entrust them with serious functions as soon as they are ready and able to perform them. In this way moral responsibility can become habitual from an early age, and the way paved for the development of sturdy moral character.” (130)

“Parental emotions like anger and disgust play a role in communicating to children the urgency of following important rules. But this does not mean that greater displays of parental affect lead to ever greater rule following. Continual, strident expressions of anger are likely to bring about just the opposite. As they become commonplace, such expressions lose their ability to arouse attention; and they create an unruly atmosphere that leads to more rather than less disorder in the family.” (55)

“Parents who were both permissive and punitive tended to have markedly more aggressive children than parents who were one and not the other or those who were neither.” (57)

“In general, the optimal conditions for successful induction of moral beliefs are (1) control of the child’s behavior through the minimal external force necessary for achieving such control, combined with (2) provision of information to the child about the rationale for the standard through persuasion, argument, and reasoning.”

“Control is needed because mere instruction without ensuring behavioral compliance does not ‘stick.’ Children quickly forget the message unless they are made to act accordingly. With control, the theory goes, the child performs the proper behavior out of necessity and then gradually begins to believe in the standard represented by this behavior. ... The key here is presenting a moral rationale along with a mild form of coercion, so that the child mainly retains the rationale.” (62)

“... inducing children towards behavioral standards through rewards is best done with minimal reward, just as inducing them through enforced control is best done with minimal force.” (63)

“Authoritarian parents rely on coercive disciplinary techniques that are too strenuous and therefore too salient. These parents may get their children to comply in the short run, but over the long haul there is nothing to sustain the desired standard. Permissive parents, on the other hand, fail to provide their children with even the minimum coercions or rewards necessary to change the child’s behavior in the first place. Thus, in the end, both sets of parents often see their children engaging in unruly behavior. Authoritative parents combine mild enforcement techniques with clear reasoning and argument. This establishes ideal conditions for children to internalize socially appropriate standards.” (63)

“... deception as an influence strategy is impractical in the long run, because sooner or later children realize that they are being manipulated.” (63)

“... control is effective only when it is communicated to children openly and directly. It is most effective when coupled with parental reasoning that supports rather than disregards the child’s own moral inclinations.” (64)

Universal Moral Standards

“Of all social norms, reciprocity is the only one that is absolutely necessary for the very existence of relationships.”

“Reciprocity establishes relationships by making communication possible. There cold be no ‘conversation’ of any kind--neither verbal nor nonverbal--without some two-way exchange of gestures, meaningful responses, and other mutual expressions of recognition that meaning has been exchanged....”

“Once relationships are established, reciprocity maintains them by ensuring that exchanges eventually serve the interests of both parties. This provides a balance of interest in the relationship that prevents it from breaking down. When, however, acts of injury or insult do temporarily destroy the relationship, reciprocity can repair it through compensatory acts. Such acts might include material reparations, apologies, expressions of forgiveness, or the giving and taking of retribution.”

Perspective-taking is a capacity that develops in childhood, and it allows children to interact with others more effectively. It is a powerful tool, but perspective-taking itself is morally neutral. It can be used to help or to harm others.

Incest has been identified by many anthropologists as a possibly universal taboo.

“Why do we, as a society, seem almost paralyzed when faced with signs of moral apathy (and, in too many cases, outright moral degradation) in youth today? ... None of us wants to raise children who lie, cheat, steal, act cruelly towards others, or refuse to accept responsibility at home or at school.” (115)

Year Read: 2000

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