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Moral understanding Essay

An alternative theory of the development of pro-social reasoning is provided by Hoffman, who saw empathy as an involuntary reaction to emotional stimuli. He suggests that it is also related to cognitive development; that is, as children gain the ability to interpret the world from others’ viewpoints, they are able to indirectly experience others’ distress, and therefore act empathetically. This is similar to Eisenberg’s idea that a child’s cognitive ability determines their ability to attend to another’s distress.

Hoffman’s theory is also a stage theory. The progression of the stages begins with an infant having ‘global emphathy’; that is, not being able to differentiate between their own distress and the distress of others. Then, they gain the ability to perceive another’s distress, and true empathy develops later. In the fourth stage, children gain the ability to empathise for another’s feelings (by age 2), and finally the child is able to undertake role-taking in order to assess what behaviour is appropriate.

These are open to many of the same criticisms as Eisenberg’s stages, for example that it is a reductionist outlook, but unlike Eisenberg’s theory, ages are not specified, allowing for individual differences in the onset of the stages. In addition to explaining the stages of pro-social development, Hoffman explained the role of discipline in children’s moral development.

He suggested that a child who is punished, without explanation, for performing anti-social behaviour may continue to perform that behaviour, but avoid punishment by not performing the behaviour in the presence of somebody who will punish them. However, if the discipline is accompanied by an explanation of how the child’s behaviour affects somebody else, or if pro-social behaviour is praised, then the child’s empathetic development will improve.

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This is supported by Baumrind (1971), who found that parents who attempted to instill pro-social behaviour into their children by means of rules and punishment were not successful. Grusec (1982) found that praise for pro-social behaviour led to behaviours in the future such as spontaneous help on the part of the child. This has implications for parenting and education, indicating that strict parenting and teaching styles based primarily on punishment are unlikely to work.

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