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Jean Piaget clearly believed that moral development of children is related to their cognitive structure at any given time. A child’s “relative social relationship with adults” plays an equal rule in the determination of his or her respect for rules (“Moral Development and Moral Education”).
Hence, young children do not understand the meaning of rules. They are egocentric, after all; and so their helplessness before the authority of adults grants them a “heteronomous moral orientation (“Moral Development and Moral Education”).” In other words, young children are subjected to rules even though they do not understand the concept of morality at all (“Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development”).
According to Piaget, the first stage of moral development is therefore referred to as premoral judgment, which coincides with sensorimotor and pre-operational stages in his theory of cognitive development. The first stage of moral development and the first two stages of cognitive development are related in the sense that children at these stages do not pay heed to the consciousness of others, being incapable of handling “complex mental operations (“Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development”).”
They are limited to certain mental schemas that they were gifted with at birth. Moreover, they are either learning about the physical world or indulging in fantasies at the abovementioned stages of cognitive development. Undoubtedly, it is impossible for them to pay attention to the viewpoints of others at this stage. Because they do not feel responsible for understanding the viewpoints of others – they do not feel the need to understand why rules must exist (“Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development”).
The second stage of moral development – moral realism – coincides with the pre-operational and concrete operational stages of cognitive development. In the stage of moral realism, children realize that they must obey rules because there are consequences of disobedience. Thus they understand that there must be a system of rules, even though their understanding of the viewpoints of others is imperfect at this stage. They respect rules only because they think that they have to.
In terms of cognitive development, however, they continue to be egocentric and vastly imaginative for their own good. In the concrete operational stage children can “appreciate conservation of quantity and number,” which is the reason why they comprehend at the stage of moral realism that there are consequences of disobedience (“Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development”). Hence, respect for rules comes into existence only because two plus two always equal four; in other words, children at this stage understand that showing disrespect toward rules almost always leads to punishment.
The final stage of moral development in Piaget’s theory is moral relativism. At this stage, children have nearly perfect respect for rules, with the understanding that rules may be altered by consultation. This stage of moral development coincides with the concrete operational and formal operational stages of cognitive development. During the formal operational stage of cognitive development, children develop an appreciation for abstract concepts.
Therefore, a child going through the stage of moral relativism would not only understand that disobedience translates into punishment, but would also be able to comprehend the nature of intentions. Because abstract reasoning is possible at this stage, the child may think through the system of rules that he or she is exposed to (“Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development”). Thus, respect for rules becomes obligatory also because the child has learned that rules are beneficial for him or her. Others’ viewpoints are quite important at this stage, as abstract concepts such as rightness or wrongness are understood (“Moral Development and Moral Education”). In this way, a child’s respect for rules remains tied to his or her cognitive development at any given point in time.
Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview. Studies in Moral Development and
Education. Available June 1, 2008, from http://tigger.uic.edu/~lnucci/MoralEd/overview.html.
Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development. Everything. Available June 1, 2008, from
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