Lawrence Kohlberg’s research and theories influenced child psychology and developmental theory for years and is still used as a way to understand what motivates the choices of children at each developmental stage. It’s a useful tool for guiding your tactics for teaching morals to your child. As Table 1 shows, very young children of preschool age view right and wrong in a very black and white manner.

Their primary motivation for doing what is right is to avoid punishment and get rewards, such as positive attention. Some children develop a strong need to “be” good and please others during this stage of development. To help children successfully learn basic moral values, parents should reinforce good behavior with praise, love and affection. However, they should not do the opposite and shame or withdraw love when a child breaks the rules. Ideally, parents should punish the child in love and the punishment should be immediately following the infraction and tied to the infraction.

In the early elementary years, children tend to obey adults without questioning why something is right or wrong. Their primary motivation is to avoid punishment or negative consequences. Consistency, unconditional love and communicating the values of the familiy are essential to instilling a sense of morality. Children do what their parents do and imitate the values that their parents stress as important. Teaching them to say, “Please” and “Thank you” instills a value of appreciation and respect during this stage of development. Additionally, emphasizing that your family does not solve problems by calling people names or hitting is another way to instill a moral foundation.

Table 1: Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning
Stage and age Principle task to learn Moral reason for being “good” Motivation for obedience
(3-5 years old)
What’s right? I should get my own way To get rewards and avoid punishments, I should do what’s right
Unquestioned Obedience
(5-7 years old)
Obedience Avoid negative consequences I should do what I’m told to do
(First to third grades)
Fairness I should look out for myself but be fair to those who are fair to me Self interest: What’s in it for me?
(Third to eighth grades)
Conformity I should be a nice person and live up the expectations of people I know and care about. So others will think well of me (social approval) and I can think well of myself (self-esteem)
Responsibility to “the system”
(High school)
Responsibility I fulfill my responsibilities to the social social value system I feel part of. To keep the system from falling apart and to maintain self-respect as somebody who meets obligations
Principled conscience
(Young adulthood to 25 or older)
Conscientious actions I should show the greatest possible respect for the rights and dignity of every person and should support a system that protects human rights. The obligation of conscience to act in accordance with the principle of respect for all human beings.

[1] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco CA: Harper Row, 1981), 23

[2] Lim, Steve. “Leading Missional Ministry.” Class notes for Core 3 Course at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO, June 15-19, 2008.

[3] Steve Lim, Transforming Believers into Growing Disciples (Springfield, MO: AGTS, 2009), chapter 2, 10.