Printer Friendly

Are children morally inferior to adults?

This article suggests that while developmental theorists are in disagreement over many particulars about child development, one area of agreement is the moral inferiority of children. It examines the theories of Freud (psychoanalysis), Kohlberg (cognitive moral development), and Skinner (behaviorism). The article provides a brief overview of each theory, discusses the implications of its views of children, and addresses problems related to it. Each of the theorists mentioned explains moral development in a way that assumes children are incapable of acting morally, disallowing any possibility of true altruism or selfless action.

**********

While developmental theories in psychology are in disagreement on many particulars, one area in which all of them concur is that children are morally inferior to adults. Psychologists studying human development have examined the subject from many different theoretical angles. In this article, I will discuss three major theoretical approaches to development: Psychoanalytic (Freud), Cognitive (Kohlberg), and Behavioral (Skinner). Each of these theorists contributes to a different perspective on the moral development of a child, yet implicitly--if not explicitly in places--assumes that adults are morally superior to children. The significant implications of this moral superiority will be reviewed below.

In the discussion of the three theories, a basic summary of each theory will be provided, followed by the resultant view of children and their moral abilities and experiences. The article will then discuss how each of them influences our views of children, followed by some theoretical problems associated with each theory. Some of the consequences of this theoretical agreement will then be addressed.

It is important to note at the outset that the focus of this article is a critical look at the developmental theories, rather than a presentation of an alternative viewpoint. In fact, many psychologists and parents would see no problem in arguing that children are, at least in some ways, morally inferior to adults. Alternative views of morality do exist (for example, Levinas), but the space limitations in this article do not permit any significant exploration of these alternatives. While I will address some of the consequences of the theories discussed, I am not arguing that these theorists are wrong. In other words, developmental psychologists may well be right in assuming that children do not initially have the ability to reason, or act, as altruistically or morally as adults, but the theories can, and should, be questioned in terms of their method and consistency.

Freud and Psychodynamic Development

Without question, Freud's theory of psychological development has had a dramatic impact on everyday, as well as academic, reasoning about child development. His framework has provided a rich set of post-Freudian theories, as well as fruitful criticisms. Freud's theory of psychosexual development derives its name from his emphasis on the flow and focus of libidinal energy (or sexual energy, broadly defined) throughout the development of a child into adulthood. His primary focus, as well as those of other theorists who followed, is on the youngest stages of development. His theory ends in late adolescence. Adulthood is seen as a time of living out our development, rather than a time of further development.

Freud's basic stages of development are, in order: oral, anal, urethral, phallic, latency, and genital (An Outline of Psychoanalysis 10-15). In each of these stages, a child's sexual energy is directed toward achieving pleasure in a certain bodily area. As the title of the first stage suggests, a child initially seeks pleasure orally. Whether suckling its mother's breast, or sucking a thumb, the child experiences pleasure in the oral stage from the mouth. As a child develops, these erotogenous zones change, and different psychological issues become manifest. For example, in the anal stage, a child learns to control the anal muscles, and therefore become more 'civilized' and acceptable to the adult world. The desire for cleanliness, control, and order are all part of the psychological aspects of this psychosexual stage. The exact nature of these stages is not the focus of this article, rather it is the issue of development from one psychosexual stage to another, culminating in the genital stage. The genital stage signifies the arrival at an adult level of development where sexual satisfaction comes through healthy heterosexual relationships and marriage. The psychosexual stages of development can be seen as a kind of across-time model of development. However, the topographical model of development is another factor that helps understand Freud's view of children, and which this article will briefly address.

At the very depth of the mental structure, we find the "id." The id is the most basic identity of the psyche and personality. Children are born as pure id (An Outline of Psychoanalysis 2). The nature of the id is described by Freud as selfish, egotistic, aggressive, hedonistic, and animalistic. The following citation from Freud gives a good indication of the nature of this most basic part of the human psyche:
 Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved....
 [T]hey are, on the contrary, creatures among whose
 instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful
 share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for
 them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also
 someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness
 on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation,
 to use him sexually without his consent, to seize
 his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to
 torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is a wolf
 to man]. (Civilization and Its Discontents 69)


The child, as id, is therefore nothing like an innocent and naive neophyte. Instead, the child is a seething, passionate creature seeking its own needs, even at the expense of others. The child is unhappy in its subordinate role and "the child's ego has to content itself with the unhappy role of the authority--the father--who has been thus degraded. Here, as so often, the real situation is reversed: 'If I were the father and you were the child I should treat you badly'" (Civilization and Its Discontents 92). A child does not submit to parental authority out of respect or love (and indeed cannot), but out of fear of punishment. If a child had the opportunity, s/he would gladly pay back any adult for their poor treatment and control.

As children develop, they find that many of their instinctual desires will be impossible to fulfill without incurring punishment and suffering. This is particularly strong during the phallic stage in young boys. The boy desires to possess his mother, but recognizes that if he did so, he would either be castrated or killed by his father. This fear of reprisal for fulfilling basic sexual needs leads to the development of the "ego" by the id. Since the ego is developed by the id to deal with the conflict between personal desires and the pressures of the outside world, the basic nature of humans remains unchanged. The instincts for immediate fulfillment of aggressive and sexual desires are still the most basic; the ego simply fulfills the need to gratify these desires realistically, according to what Freud termed the reality principle (Rychlak 56). The ego can hardly be considered distinctly different from the id, but may more properly be called the "organized portion of the id" (The Standard Edition 97). The "superego," the third major part of the psyche, is an introjection of parental and societal morals which acts as a counterbalance to the wishes of the id. Morals of society are taken in, and soon become part of the psyche, not only making demands that the id follow laws and moral behaviors, but also punishing it with guilt when it expresses its real desires.

Consequences of Freud's View of Children

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, children, as pure id, are selfish, brash, and hedonistic. Though restrained by the lack of physical power, the desires of the childish id are aggressive and sexually charged. We understand children as wolves, seeking only their own pleasure and will, against the dictates of parents and society. At best, we might see children as primarily amoral, and ignorant of proper social conduct and rules. However, children as id are ultimately unable to act morally; they lack the very capacity to serve others unselfishly. If a child acts in a way that benefits another, we must assume that this behavior is ultimately motivated by selfishness. For example, if a child offers another child a favorite toy, it must be that this behavior is caused by either a sought after pleasure (parental approval and affection) or fear of punishment (a spanking for not sharing). We cannot see the action as motivated by a desire (even an immature one) to benefit another. This altruistic formulation is impossible because children are incapable of selfless action.

Freudian theory also leads us to see children as filled with dark, violent, and sexual tendencies that must be dealt with carefully. If these animalistic tendencies are not dealt with in the right way, the child will have psychological problems that may last into adulthood. For example, children must be potty-trained just right because the repercussions of parental mistakes are life-long. This instills in parents and caregivers the need to properly constrain and restrain the urges of the child in order for the ego to develop properly. Children are not independently able to develop proper morality, and are sometimes irreparably damaged by improper treatment. Since children lack the ability to act for the sake of others, or without thought for the self, these kinds of behaviors have to be modeled and developed in the child by the parent. Children have to be controlled by the parent because "at this stage the sense of guilt is clearly only a fear of loss of love, 'social' anxiety. In small children it can never be anything else" (Civilization and Its Discontents 85; emphasis mine). In summary, children are hedonistic and aggressive, utterly incapable of moral behavior. Clearly, children are moral inferiors because they are entirely lacking in morality, even a limited sense of a shared social morality.

Problems with Freud's Theory of Childhood Morality

As with many psychological theories, Freud's deals almost entirely with unknowns. His view of childish motives is filled with unprovable, unobservable, and unconscious motives. We can never refute a theory of moral development which is based upon motives that cannot ultimately be seen in action. His theory is simply assumed to be true. In other words, even when a child seems to act for the benefit of another, s/he must be is acting for self-benefit or to avoid self-harm. No amount of data showing young children helping others could ever disprove Freud's theory, because we assume an egoistic interpretation beforehand. Another trump card for Freud is that a denial of this part of childhood is tantamount to being in denial of our own childhood sexual fantasies. To deny that children are aggressive and sexual is simply proof that we really have those desires but do not want to admit them.

Freud's theory of childhood morality removes any possibility of truly altruistic behavior without offering real proof. The assumption has to be made before we observe a child's behavior. What is seen on the surface as helpful, or pro-social behavior, is discounted as another example of selfishness and hedonism. While Freud's theory implicitly treats children as morally inferior, our next theorist, Laurence Kohlberg, makes this inferiority explicit.

Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development

Of all the theories of moral development, the work of Laurence Kohlberg has been most widely used, studied, praised, and criticized. His work on moral development has spawned a huge program of research over the last two decades (Thomas). His theories are widely used in schools as part of moral education programs. Kohlberg followed the tradition of Piaget's theory of childhood cognitive development. In Piaget's theory, morality is primarily based upon rules passed from adult to child (Piaget). A child's ability to understand, and act upon, these moral rules is inextricably tied to her/his stage of cognitive development. Kohlberg follows this logic in his theory of moral development, which describes childhood moral development as a cognitive progression.

It is necessary to briefly describe Kohlberg's theory of moral development. In The Psychology of Moral Development, Kohlberg splits moral development into three levels, and six stages. A child begins in level one, and gradually develops through each stage. It is thought that not all adults function in the highest level of morality, but that some still function in the inferior childish levels, even later in life. The table on the following page summarizes information found in Kohlberg's "Moral Stages and Moralization." Each of the levels shows an increase in children's ability to reason rationally--at least in light of a particular set of Western philosophical values. Cognitive development is not enough, however: "Moral and social development is more than cognitive development, but depends upon it. That child at stage zero in morality is also prelogical or preoperational" (Child Psychology and Childhood Education 23).

Similar to Freud's theory, children operate initially for hedonistic reasons. As can be seen in Table 1, a child both views actions that avoid punishment as moral, and acts with the aim of avoiding punishment. Children submit to the power of authority because the authority has the ability to cause harm or pain to those who disobey, not out of love or respect. We might even say that children cannot act out of love or respect, but only out of submission to a higher authority which can mete out punishment. The second stage is still overtly hedonistic, though more sophisticated. In this stage, children follow rules to meet their own needs, recognizing that, to meet their own needs and avoid punishment, one must also acknowledge the needs of others. This is very similar to the functioning of the ego in Freud's theory. The child--at this point ego and id--acts to serve her/his own needs, but is now able to see the necessity of respecting the rights of others--Freud's reality principle.

In stages 3 and 4, the child begins to see morality as based on rule-following. In stage three, they begin to believe that it is important to live up to others' expectations--and these expectations include empathic behavior. The reasons for following the right behavior are to support rules and avoid breakdown of the necessary social structure. Again, this is similar to the development of the superego in Freud's theory, where the importance of a civilized society begins to impact the reasoning of the child. Children begin to act in a way that preserves social order, and even begin to identify right behavior as fulfilling social agreements--the same function as the superego.

The final stages (5 and 6) of Kohlberg's theory are based upon the idea of individual human rights. Adults, at this stage, are tolerant of others' values, while maintaining and developing a set of self-chosen ethical principles that are based upon justice, equality, and the life and liberty of all people. Stage 6 is thought of as almost 'theoretical,' because Kohlberg found few people who ever seemed to reach this highest stage of moral reasoning (Thomas 61).

Consequences of Kohlberg's View of Children

As in Freudian theory, Kohlberg assumes that children do not, and cannot, have the capacity for higher-level moral thinking or action. As adults, we must train children to be moral--which means that they are not so on their own--and adults are, therefore, placed in a morally superior position. Just as a child must be taught their multiplication tables, they must be taught how to reason morally by adults.

Kohlberg sees children as little 'moral philosophers,' but always assumes that adults function on a superior moral plane. For instance, giving an example of his son's immature moral reasoning, he quotes his son saying: "When I get big, and you get small, I'll call you bad and spank you" (Child Psychology and Childhood Education 23). Kohlberg uses this as an example of inferior moral reasoning and immature cognitive development. But why is it that a child is wrong when he talks about himself doing the same thing as his father--using verbal and physical punishment as a show of displeasure with another's actions? Is the father justified in spanking his child, while the child becomes somehow morally inferior when he imagines himself doing the same thing in return? Because we automatically assume that children are morally inferior, we allow ourselves to be justified in certain behaviors that we would not accept in our children.

Kohlberg even seems to admit this problem when he describes his response to a moral debate with his son about animals' worth: "Now, how do you argue with that? You really have to be a philosopher. But if you are, you may decide he's right. If you're not, at some point you'll break down as I did and invoke Stage Four law, order, and parental authority" (Child Psychology and Childhood Education 23). This is Kohlberg refusing to engage with his son on an equal moral level, exercising, instead, his parental authority. In other words, what he is saying is: 'It is right because I say so and I am the parent.' But this outcome follows from the idea that adults are naturally morally superior to children. When we spank, we do it for the right reasons, when children hit, they do it for the wrong reasons. Interestingly, Kohlberg sees stage 5 as the time when we really begin to understand the universal principle of equality in that we "treat every man's claim equally, regardless of the man" ("Moral and Religious Education in the Public Schools" 169). But what about the moral claim of a child? We obviously believe that their moral claims are inferior in value to that of adults.

Problems with Kohlberg's Theory

One of the primary problems with Kohlberg's theory is its heavy reliance on cognitive reasoning about morality. He even claims that his theory is not a theory of moral action: "I have always tried to be clear that my stages are stages of justice reasoning, not of emotions, aspirations, or action. Our database has been a set of hypothetical dilemmas posing conflicts between the rights or claims of different persons in dilemma situations" (Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development 224). Kohlberg's research method has been to present moral dilemmas to children and adults, and have them say what the 'right' thing to do is in a given situation. This, of course, is not studying child or adult moral action, but their reasoning about what is right. The logic here is problematic because the relationship between what we talk about and how we behave is rarely, if ever, a direct one. While Kohlberg attempts to clarify that his research is not about moral behavior, the temptation seems to be too strong to resist talking about his theory as one of moral development, rather than simply justice reasoning. And no surprise, because a theory that only deals with, and predicts, how we talk about abstract moral dilemmas is not very interesting or provocative. This limitation, when taken seriously, is a flaw that undoes any relevance of his theory to real-world action, and a theory that simply accounts for changes in how we think about abstract principles holds much less power. Until the relationship between moral reasoning and moral behavior can be identified, it seems that education in moral reasoning--a large part of the research by Kohlberg and colleagues--has little justification.

Another important problem with Kohlberg's theory is that the moral value of the same action changes according to whether it is undertaken by an adult or a child. For example, if a child gives away their favorite candy or toy to a friend, this is seen as manipulation, blind rule-following, or instrumental exchange. When an adult gives something of value away to another, it can be considered an action based upon high-level universal ethical principles. Of course, an adult can act on a lower level of moral reasoning, and give in order to get something in return (think of a salesperson offering complimentary tickets to the football game). But a child simply cannot have acted on a higher level because they are assumed to lack the very capacity to do so. Children are, therefore, morally inferior to adults, lacking even the possibility of selfless behavior.

Finally, Kohlberg's cognitive theory of moral development makes an assumption about intelligence and morality that has long been used to justify the actions of upper-class, well-educated people in suppressing those of a lower status. That is, if morality relies upon reasoning, and reasoning is based upon one's level of intelligence, smarter people have the capacity to be more moral than those with lower intelligence. This reasoning has been used by some to defend the position that the rich deserve to be rich; and the poor deserve to be poor because wealth is a sign of higher intelligence and industry. In their controversial book The Bell Curve, Hermstein and Murray argue that: "human beings in general are capable of deciding between right and wrong. This does not mean, however, that everyone is capable of deciding between right and wrong with the same sophistication and nuances" (543). They go on to describe how less intelligent people are less moral, using statistics on crime and marriage: "People of limited intelligence can lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal.' They find it much harder to lead moral lives in a society that is run on the basis of 'Thou shalt not steal unless there is a really good reason to'" (544). They advocate less nuanced legal systems to deal with those people not cognitively developed or intelligent enough to understand the gray areas of higher moral reasoning. One can see the similarity between the eugenic ideas of Herrnstein and Murray and the moral development theory of Kohlberg. The problem is that when morality is based upon the ability to reason, it becomes tempting to equate intelligence, or cognitive reasoning, with morality itself--as if the ability to talk about morality in a sophisticated way were equal to the ability and will to act morally.

Applied to children, this problem may be illustrated in the following way. When a very young child is asked why they drew with permanent marker on a white wall, they may reply 'I don't know.' They are usually punished not only for the writing,, but for not having a good enough 'reason' for doing so. Eventually, a child learns that when asked 'Why did you do that?' they are to respond with some sort of explanation that involves finding rational excuses for the behavior. For example, when caught hitting a sibling, the response is 'She hit me first,' or 'She wouldn't stop copying me.' These, of course, are similar to the adult justification for hitting a child: 'Now you know how it feels to be hit' or 'If I don't spank him, he will keep misbehaving.' We say 'Don't hit' while we, ourselves, spank because we believe we are hitting for a higher moral purpose, that a child hitting another cannot have. Could it not be that children are not necessarily becoming more moral as they pass through Kohlberg's stages, but becoming more adult-like in their ability to reason and talk about moral dilemmas? If so, the difference between adult and child moral reasoning is not one of degree, but of experience--of knowing what is culturally and socially appropriate to say and do in a given situation. For example, I am an American living in an Arab country. If I were to reach out my left hand to shake a friend's hand, he might think me an offensive person, insulting him with such a gesture. In reality, of course, I may simply not understand what is expected in such a social situation outside my culture. The linking of cognitive moral reasoning with morality itself has other problems, which cannot be addressed here due to space. Let it suffice to say that the notion of a direct link between reasoning and morality is highly problematic.

Skinner's Model of Behavioral Development

It is somewhat difficult on the surface to discuss moral development in the theories of B. F. Skinner, because he would probably be uncomfortable with the use of the word 'moral' in his theories. And yet, Skinner's work clearly points toward certain ideals and moral values that are desirable and attainable through his methods. Skinner's theories have been immensely popular, contributing to psychology, education, animal training, parenting, and many other fields in behavioral research. His works include scientific behavioral research and even a novel, Walden Two, which will provide us with some understanding of his view of what is moral. Skinner is best known for his principles of operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement (Ferster and Skinner). A basic review of Skinner's theory of operant conditioning is necessary before addressing how there is a strong moral theme in his work, even if initially somewhat hidden.

Skinner's theory is adamantly positivistic. He claims that there is no need for any 'learning theory' because theorizing always takes us away from the scientific observations that provide us with the facts about behavior ("Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" 215). As he asserts, behavior is always for a purpose--to gain pleasure and happiness for the behaving organism or to avoid pain or suffering. We cannot know what is 'pleasurable' except by observation. If a behavior is followed by a consequence that increases the likelihood of that behavior being repeated, we would call it a reinforcing consequence, or simply reinforcement. If a behavior is followed by a consequence that leads to a decrease in the repetition of the behavior, we would call this punishment. Reinforcement and punishment contingencies form the basis of Skinner's theory, and the basis of all human and animal behavior. Whether it is a simple behavior of pushing a button to get candy, or the complex behavior of verbal conversation, it is always based upon our past and present reinforcement contingencies. For example, in a complex act like conversation, our verbal behavior is explained by the reinforcement we have received in the past for providing similar responses.

Skinner's theory of development, even moral development, follows from these principles of reinforcement and punishment. But we first have to deal with the question of what can be moral in a system where no one 'chooses' a behavior. For Skinner, our behaviors are not chosen, but selected by the environment: "The environment not only produces or lashes, it selects. Its goal is similar to that in natural selection, though on a very different timescale, and it was overlooked for the same reason" (Beyond Freedom and Dignity 18). Skinner compares behavioral selection to the Darwinian notion of natural selection. In this case, a behavior that is most adaptable, and most likely to bring pleasure and avoid pain, is selected by the environment. Behaviors that lead to suffering or pain are not reinforced, and, therefore, become extinct. As in evolutionary theory, a concept of morality is not readily available. Even Skinner resists terms like "morality," calling them "mentalisms" that are unnecessary for understanding human behavior (Rychlak 439).

However, Skinner ultimately cannot avoid proposing a set of values. The most explicit statement of these values is made in his book Walden Two, in which we are introduced to a Skinnerian utopia based upon the principles of operant conditioning. An entire community is based upon reinforcing the right kinds of behavior. In some sense, all the members of the community are puppets of the environment, acting according to what they are being reinforced to do. But who decides which behaviors are good and right, and should, therefore, be reinforced? In his book, it is Frazier, the builder of the community, who does so. If there are puppets to be manipulated to act in the 'right' way, there has to be a puppet master--the one who sets up the contingencies to reward the right kinds of behavior. This means, of course, that Frazier himself must somehow know what things are morally right. And Skinner clearly outlines that the right kinds of behavior are the ones leading to freedom from oppression, happiness for all the community, and the advancement of science.

Skinner deals directly with raising children in Walden Two, giving us a clear picture of how his theory deals with the developing child. At the earliest age, children in Walden Two are raised in "air cribs," a sort-of climate controlled box that makes the constrictions of clothing and blankets unnecessary. They are easy to clean and, therefore, keep parents from having to deal with the unpleasantry of dirty diapers and washing clothes. Parents and others from the community would hold the children and show them affection, without having to deal with the hard work of a new baby. The boxes are also sound-proof so that the baby can sleep peacefully. Babies after one year of age are gradually introduced to an outside environment, but kept from having to experience negative emotions like anger, frustration, or jealousy. All the target behaviors are shaped and created through reinforcement. Skinner was personally adamant against force, punishment, and aggression. In Skinner's theory, reflected in his utopian child-raising techniques, children are best dealt with by meeting all of their needs with reinforcement. They are inferior, and need to be controlled, because they lack the proper experience to behave in proper ways. In other words, the children, and all other citizens, need a superior being to reinforce proper behaviors, because they lack the knowledge of what is right. Frazier, a god-like figure in the novel, is the great controller of all behavior--the focus, of course, being upon controlling children's behavior.

Consequences of Skinner's Theory of Moral Development

In Skinner's theory, children are incapable of acting in the proper way without the right kind of environmental controls. These controls need to be provided by another person, who knows the proper behaviors and can set up the necessary reinforcement contingencies. Skinner's theory focuses on using these principles in schooling young children. Teachers are encouraged to use praise and rewards to reinforce proper behaviors in the classroom. Teachers become the Fraziers of the classroom environment, controlling the behavior and setting up the right behavioral habits of the children. This, of course, means that children of themselves are incapable of knowing what is right, or acting in a way that is acceptable and moral. A psychologist colleague of mine once commented: "You know where children who are not raised on behavioral principles end up?" Answering his own question, he responded: "Prison." This reflects the idea that children are organisms that need to be controlled. If left on their own in an unstructured environment, children will become selfish, deviant, and anti-social. Proper mechanisms of control are necessary to shape children into good citizens.

It may be too obvious to point out the inequality inherent in these ideas. In Walden Two, Frazier compares himself to God: "I look upon my work and behold, it is good" (295). Interestingly, the character also calls the citizens of Walden Two his "children." That is, we are led to believe, children are the products of adults--and thus inferior to them, in morality and in power. The consequence is similar to what we are left with in Kohlberg's theory--that adults are morally superior to children, and, therefore, must act in the proper authority and control so that children become good adults. The moral superiority is necessary for a teacher or parent to be in total control of a child's behavior--it must be assumed that the adult knows better than the child what is best and what constitutes morality. A child is seen like a lab rat; if we do not give the candy (reinforcement), we cannot expect them to act in the desired way.

Problems in Skinner's Theory

The major problem with Skinner's view regarding childhood morality is that his overall theory would seem to negate the reality of any morality at all. And yet, his theories are full of moral claims about the nature of humans and animals, the importance of science, and the value of unmarred happiness. Many behavioral scientists have also tried to make an amoral stance about human behavior, but amorality itself is a moral stance. In other words, to say that there is no morality is still a moral statement about the nature of humans. Clearly, Skinner has not escaped the question of what is moral, and who decides it.

This leads to a second major weakness: If all human behavior is caused by our reinforcement histories, even Frazier's behavior must have been caused by his own reinforcement history. If this is true, then Frazier has no more claim to moral truth than any of his subjects. Therefore, he is using his power to manipulate and control others to follow his arbitrary (selected by his environment, not him) moral standards. Nobody has moral superiority, because their own moral beliefs and behaviors are, in turn, shaped by their own past environments. This problem is illustrated in childhood education; since adults' moral beliefs and behaviors are caused by their past environmental experiences, they have no higher moral claim than children. Because adults have greater power, physically and socially, they can create an environment which rewards what they see as good behavior and punishes what they see as bad. But their views of what is good and bad are themselves the product of their own history of reinforcement. We are left with a cascading series of inherited behaviors, without an original source. But even Skinner could not create his utopia without a puppet-master. There has to be a creator of moral standards who is outside of her/his own reinforcement history, or else all moral views are arbitrary. Most adults do not view themselves as the puppet. The puppet has to be the person with less power--in our discussion, the child.

Overall Considerations of Theories of Childhood Morality

It is surprising to see similar views about the moral life of children across such seemingly disparate theories as psychoanalysis, cognitive development, and behaviorism. However, despite their disagreement on many issues, each of the theories encourages the view that children are ultimately inferior to adults. Whether because of their lack of psychological development, cognitive sophistication, or behavioral experience, children lack even the possibility of acting morally. Their outwardly altruistic behavior is seen as manipulative, naive, or merely the result of the right behavioral training. As Coles expounds in his lecture "Children as Moral Observers":
 We are told, repeatedly, that children aren't really
 "moral" or "ethical" in their thinking; they are moralistic,
 rigidly intent on obeying perceived rules and regulations,
 responsive to their own literal-mindedness, and,
 not least, to a "primitive" kind of conscience, the
 demands of a "superego" fiercely intent on dealing with
 those purely instinctual forces which threaten to overwhelm
 all of us. (131)


In our psychological theories, we negate the very possibility of moral action in children.

The idea in these theories--that children are morally inferior--is something assumed prior to our interactions with children, rather than a fact of our observations or experiences. Certainly, we have all seen destructive behavior in children, and been able to explain it through our psychological theories. However, it is also true that profoundly generous and benevolent actions are frequently seen in children. The problem is that we discount these kinds of behaviors before they even happen, because our theories about child development leave us few, if any, alternatives. One psychiatrist, after life-long work with children in crisis situations, concludes: "How significantly, how frequently, do children get to the moral heart of things, as compared to adults'? I suspect the answer is that the texture of a person's moral life is not by any means necessarily a function of his or her age" (Coles 133). But this assumption about moral abilities contradicts the one made by Freud, Kohlberg, and Skinner--that young children are incapable of moral action simply because of their age.

The consequence of this view of children is ultimately a practical one. We understand, experience, and treat children differently through the lens of our theories and assumptions about them. Perhaps I may take the liberty of following Kohlberg' s use of a personal example of my own child. After learning that my wallet had been stolen, my five-year-old daughter, Asia, immediately ran to her piggy bank, and got out all the money. She put all her money in an envelope and told her mother: "I'm going to give Dad all my money so he can get a new wallet." She left a note with the money saying: "THIS MOUNY IS TO YOU DAD." When I thanked her for her generosity, she replied: "Even if I had a hundred and sixty pounds, I would give it all to you." According to Freud, Asia is giving me the money in order to purchase greater love and affection motivated by her desire for her father. Kohlberg's interpretation is that Asia, who, at age five, would likely be in Stage 2, is acting to serve her own needs by giving money to her father, and is expecting a reward in return for her altruistic behavior. For Skinner, Asia's has been rewarded in the past for similar behaviors. If this was a first-time behavior, it would not occur again if it were not subsequently rewarded. Asia's behavior is on the same plane as a rat pushing a lever for food.

The one option that we are not allowed is that Asia's behavior was motivated by empathy and love for her father, devoid of any personal or ulterior motives. And this is the consequence: We have no option except to see children as manipulative, primitive, and self-seeking--no matter what actions they take.

Works Cited

Coles, R. "Children as Moral Observers." The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. University of Michigan. April 7, 1980.

Ferster, C. B. and B. F. Skinner. Schedules of Reinforcement. NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.

Freud, S. An Outline of Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P, 1973.

--. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XX. Trans. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth P, 1959.

--. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. NY: W. W. Norton, 1961.

Herrnstein, R. J. and C. Murray. The Bell Curve. NY: The Free P, 1994.

Kohlberg, L. "Moral and Religious Education in the Public Schools: A Developmental View." Religion and Public Education. Ed., T. R. Sizer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

--. "Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach." Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research, and Social Issues. Ed. T. Lickona. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1976.

--. The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

--. Child Psychology and Childhood Education: A Cognitive-Developmental View. NY: Longman, 1987.

Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. R. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1985.

Piaget, J. The Moral Judgment of the Child. NY: Free P, 1965.

Skinner, B. F. "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" Psychological Review 57.4 (1950): 193-216.

--. Walden Two. NY: Macmillan, 1962.

--. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

Rychlak, J. F. Personality and Psychotherapy: A Theory Construction Approach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Thomas, R. M. Moral Development Theories--Secular and Religious. London: Greenwood P, 1997.
Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

Stage What is Right? Reasons for doing right

Stage 1: avoid breaking rules avoid punishment and
Heteronomous morality that are backed by submission to power of
 punishment, blind authorities.
 obedience, and not
 hurting others.

Stage 2: Following rules to Serve one's own needs
Individualism, meet one's immediate with recognition that
instrumental purpose, interests and this requires
and exchange allowing others to acknowledging the needs
 do the same. Right of others.
 is what is
 instrumentally fair.

Stage 3: Living up to what The need to be good in
Mutual interpersonal others expect of your own estimation and
expectations you. Being good is that of others. Desire
 important and this to maintain rules which
 involves showing support stereotypically
 concern for others. good behavior.

Stage 4: Social Fulfilling To avoid breakdown of
system and conscience agreements; obeying the social structure.
 laws. Contributing
 to society and
 the group.

Stage 5: Social Being tolerant of One should act out of a
contract and others' values and desire for the 'greatest
individual rights opinions; obeying good for the greatest
 one's own cultural number.'
 social contract.
 There are some
 non-relative values
 and rights like life
 and liberty.

Stage 6: Universal Following The belief, as a
ethical principles self-chosen ethical rational person, in
 principles, even if universal moral
 these violate law. principles and a
 Universal principles commitment to live by
 of justice and them.
 equality of human
 beings.
COPYRIGHT 2007 American University in Cairo
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Whoolery, Matthew
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:6777
Previous Article:Vital attitude of the poet: interview with Naomi Shihab Nye.
Next Article:Maturing into childhood: an interpretive framework of a modern cosmogony and poetics.


Related Articles
State Teachers of the Year to reform NCLB.
Renzulli learning systems: Renzulli Learning.
"The Simple little picture book": private theater to postmodern experience.
"The Child is Father of the Man": The Rainbow of My Painting.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters