What You Can Learn From Helping Your Children Develop Moral Codes

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Helping your children develop moral codes doesn't have to wait until they are old enough for in-depth conversations about ethics and good decision-making. Children often learn early morality by picking up on their environment and watching their parents or guardians. Verbal communication is still important, though. 

Are you modeling morals for your child?

Where do children get their morals?

Evidence suggests that children begin to develop morality around one year of age. Early morality is closely linked to the early development of empathy, as evidenced by many one- and two-year-olds' desire to help with activities their parent or guardian is doing.

While the help offered by a toddler may not reduce the workload, the child's desire to help and contribute often marks the onset of empathetic connections and a drive to engage in prosocial behavior.

Children's moral development has been studied for decades, but there are competing theories regarding how moral reasoning develops in children. Further complicating matters is the fact that scientists aren't quite sure how or why morality developed in humans originally.

One popular theory asserts that prehistoric humans evolved rudimentary moral codes to promote cooperation. An instinctive drive to help other humans–and avoid harming them–was one factor that likely allowed humans to foster more close-knit communities. 

Thanks to the adoption of early moral values, those communities could have accomplish more than if their members had differing values. This instinct is likely still intact, evidenced by the average toddler's desire to help parents with tasks.

Here are explanations of two theories that attempt to explain how a child's moral development works:

Jean Piaget's theory of moral and cognitive development

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, developed one of the first widely accepted theories of child development. Piaget's theory was based on a child's cognitive development; he conceptualized moral growth as a function of how far the child's brain had developed. Children's ability to act, think, reason morally, and develop empathy increases as they gain more cognitive functions.

Piaget's theory is split into four stages:

Sensorimotor stage (Age 0–2)

Moral growth has not yet begun, and children react to basic stimuli like hunger and caregiver attention.

Preoperational stage (Age 2–7)

Children at this young age are not yet capable of the mental operations required for logically distinguishing right from wrong. They respond to rewards and punishment, but their motivation to do the right thing is entirely motivated by avoiding punishment or earning a reward. 

Children are egocentric (self-serving) in this stage, as they do not have the cognitive ability to understand the views and perspectives of others. Children also begin to gain symbolic function, meaning they can now think in images and symbols.

Concrete operational stage (Age 7–11)

The concrete operational stage is marked by the emergence of logical reasoning, completion of cognitive symbolic development, elimination of egocentrism, and development of perspective-taking. 

In this stage, the child internalizes family values, begins to adopt morals, and develops a moral code. They are no longer only avoiding punishment or seeking a reward; they are beginning to develop a more mature sense of right and wrong. 

Formal operational stage (Age 11–15+)

Children mature into adolescents and often develop high-level adult reasoning at this stage. They are capable of abstract thought, metacognition (thinking about thinking), and advanced problem-solving. Cognitively, children in this stage can usually adopt, modify, and create their own moral values.

Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg was an American psychologist who supported Piaget's theories of development. He takes Piaget's ideas further, developing six stages of moral development in children. There are three primary levels, each with two sub-stages.

Preconventional morality (Age 2–8)

The first stage of preconventional morality is characterized by the child showing good behavior to avoid punishment or gain rewards. The child believes that if someone is punished, they must have done wrong. Conversely, if someone is being rewarded, they must have done right.

The second stage is characterized by emerging individualism and self-interest. Children are now more motivated by rewards but still lack moral values. They are behaving as requested for the reward alone.

Conventional morality (Age 8–14)

The third stage of development (and the first stage in conventional morality development) is characterized by accepting social rules regarding right and wrong. The child or adolescent desires to be seen as a good person by others. They are also able to take a third person's perspective and put themselves in another's shoes. 

In the fourth stage, the child becomes aware of the rules of society and the reasoning behind them. They begin to understand why certain actions are right or wrong, like how cheating on a test isn't good because it harms the integrity of the academic system. Many people do not progress beyond the conventional morality level. 

Postconventional morality (Age 15+)

At the fifth stage, the adolescent or young adult can recognize that society's laws and structures are generally beneficial but often fail to work in the interest of particular individuals. They recognize what is fair and question and regularly update their morals.

At the sixth and final stage, the now-grown person adopts what Kohlberg termed a "universal ethical principle" orientation towards morality. The person creates their own moral guidelines that may or may not align with the law. Kohlberg theorized that very few people reach this stage.


What can you learn while helping your child navigate developing morals?

Children often need verbal explanations of morals, but modeling and demonstrating strong moral behavior is equally important. If you're committed to helping your child develop robust moral values, here are some of the things you could learn:

Developmentally appropriate communication

One of the most important parts of the parent-child connection is communication. While verbal communication is a necessary part of helping a child develop good morals, you may also need to hone your non-verbal communication, especially for younger children. 

Children under six like to communicate through play, and play with parents is an important part of bonding. You can use imagination play to help teach your young one by modeling respectable behavior with puppets, dolls, or other props.

As children grow older, verbal communication becomes increasingly important. A child's moral development largely depends on good morals being modeled, but parents should also explain the reason for the rule or behavior. As children get older, it is often helpful for them to understand the context surrounding what you are asking of them.

Here is a brief guide on communicating with children of various ages:

Learn about your parenting style

When working with your child to help instill good morals and values, you may wish to consider evaluating your parenting to get an idea of how you approach your child when disciplining, praising, or redirecting. There are four main parenting styles:

  • Authoritative parents have a close, nurturing relationship with their children, but expectations for behavior are high. Rules are clear, and the child knows what is expected of them. Limits are firm, but the child is treated with warmth and love.
  • Authoritarian parents have a one-way mode of communication. The parent gives the child an order, and the child must comply. These caregivers are not very nurturing and have little tolerance for mistakes. Research indicates this style of parenting does long-term emotional harm to children.
  • Permissive parents tend to spoil their children. They are warm and nurturing but do not usually enforce rules or set firm limits.
  • Uninvolved parents don't do much parenting at all. They neglect their child's emotional and developmental needs but usually provide essentials like food and shelter. This parenting style has also been shown to harm children

Evidence indicates that authoritative parents tend to have the best outcomes. It is also clear that an authoritative approach is best for teaching strong moral values. Look at your parenting style and make it more authoritative, if possible. Your child's behavior is likely to reflect your efforts. 

Learn your own moral values

Few people regularly question their morals. If you have a young child and are just starting to teach morality or are doubling down on your efforts with an older child, you will likely end up examining your own moral values. If you work on your morals while supporting your child's growth, you may strengthen your parent-child bond

Take time for self-reflection, which often allows you to find the correct words to explain your moral goals to your child. Your child expects older people to guide them and be good examples. 

iStock/Alessandro Biascioli
Are you modeling morals for your child?

How can online therapy help?

Online therapy can connect you with a licensed therapist without needing to leave your home. It can be an excellent option for parents and caregivers with scheduling or mobility constraints. 

A therapist can help you introduce strong morals to your child, and they can also help with related mental health conditions. Online therapists have the same training and credentials as traditional therapists and use the same evidence-based techniques, like parent-child interaction therapy. Evidence also indicates that therapy delivered online is just as effective as in-person therapy.


Teaching your child strong morals typically requires speaking to them about why morals exist and modeling the behavior you want them to demonstrate. Children grow morals slowly over time. It is important to remember that young children under the age of eight are usually not being maliciously selfish; their brains have simply not developed to a point where they can take the perspective of others. 

As you help your child gain strong morals, try to use developmentally appropriate language, and take time to analyze your parenting style. It could teach you a lot about where your child's morals and behavior come from.

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