Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Preschool Years (3–5)

How do preschool children understand morality?

With the gains in self-control and social competence, the preschool child also develops the beginnings of a moral sense. Concern with a dawning morality is frequently evident in pretend play, which is often populated with cops and robbers and bad people getting sent to jail. A child this age has a rudimentary concept of right and wrong and of good and bad. These concepts are largely based on adult behavior. If an adult tells them a behavior is wrong, particularly if they are punished for it, they learn that the behavior is considered “bad.” A preschool child’s concept of morality is very crude, however. It is simplistic, rigid, and sometimes self-serving. “OK, we can share, but I want both,” a five-year-old boy told his sister when she suggested dividing a piece of cake in half.

With time the child begins to internalize parental standards, basing moral understanding not only on what parents say, but on the child’s own personal standards of right and wrong. Moreover, as their cognitive development progresses, their moral understanding gains sophistication. How well the parents teach morality and instill discipline profoundly influences the child’s ability to develop mature and effective moral standards. If parental discipline is overly rigid and harsh, overly permissive, or arbitrary and inconsistent, children will be hampered in their understanding of right and wrong. Children whose parents explain moral standards and point out the effect of aggressive actions on other people develop better social skills.


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