Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Moral Reasoning in the Early Years: Age and Gender Patterns Amongst Young Children in South Africa

Academic journal article Gender & Behaviour

Moral Reasoning in the Early Years: Age and Gender Patterns Amongst Young Children in South Africa

Article excerpt


Drawing on the work of Carol Gilligan (1982) and Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) the study sought to examine children's moral reasoning about situations involving conflicts and how they would resolve them. It also explored whether children's choice of moral orientation varied across individual factors such as age and gender. The study was conducted at a primary school in a working class suburb in THE province of KwaZulu-Natal. The participants in the study were a group of 72 grade one and two students. They were randomly selected stratified by age (6, 7 and 8 year olds) and gender. The children were required to respond to three scenarios depicting real life moral dilemmas. A key finding was that children's responses across gender and age reflected more of a care than a justice orientation. Across age ranges boys' responses reflected more of a care orientation than a justice orientation which is contrary to Kohlberg's view. Girls' responses reflected a greater care orientation than a justice orientation, as found in studies by Gilligan.

Key words: children, Gilligan, moral reasoning, South Africa


There has been considerable debate as to how children acquire morality. Social learning theorists believe that children learn morality by being rewarded or punished for various kinds of behaviour (Bandura, 1986; Bandura 8c Walters, 1963). Cognitive theorists assert that like intellectual development morality develops in progressive, age-related stages (Piaget, 1965). Piaget also reasoned that there was a process by which children conform to society's norms of what is right and wrong, and that the process was active rather than passive. Children's understandings of rules progress from comprehending at about age six that rules are sacred and cannot be violated to a final stage at about age ten when they understand that rules are the result of mutual consent. According to the psychosocial theory of Erikson (1964) the morality of childhood is based on the fear of threats to be forestalled. The outer fears are abandonment, punishment or exposure and the inner fears are of guilt, shame or isolation. The development of a moral attitude implies certain forms of feelings where others have been treated unfairly or where self has violated others rights or failed in responsibility to other persons. Feelings of shame are related to the failure to live up to ones self-ideal and identity.

A model of moral development that has dominated the field for over 30 years has been that of Lawrence Kohlberg (Kohlberg, 1969). Kohlberg (1973; 1981; 1984) cultivated a theory of moral development, which shared with Piaget's the view that moral reasoning is fundamentally a cognitive process. Consistent with Piaget, Kohlberg proposed that children form ways of thinking through their experiences, which include understandings of moral concepts such as justice, rights, equality and human welfare. Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgement beyond the ages studied by Piaget, and determined that the process of attaining moral maturity took longer and was more gradual than Piaget had proposed. In Kohlberg's theory moral reasoning is evaluated in terms of an individual's ability to consider issues of fairness and justice, and to balance the needs of the self and larger society. Kohlberg (1969) identified justice as an essential factor in the socialisation process and significant in the adolescent years. He identified 6 stages of moral development in the individual that are relative to the "justice structures" (Kohlberg, 1984). The stages begin from a primitive mode of obedience to the judgement of a situation on the basis of universal principles of justice. The adolescent is believed to become more sensitive to the morality of particular circumstances as his or her judgement becomes free from personal or situational constraints.

Though widely respected and cited, Kohlberg's work has been criticised for its attention to only one mode of reasoning, for its use of decontextualized hypothetical dilemmas, and for its focus on moral thought rather than moral action. …

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