ISSN 1753-0849

Childhoods Today Online JournalChildhoods Today

An online journal for childhood studies


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Special Issue - June 21, 2009

The morality of young children in their early years setting

Pat Gordon-Smith

Research by psychologists Kohlberg and Piaget characterised young children’s moral actions as parroted from adults and carried out only to attract praise instead of blame. Their ideas derived from a view that moral agency is impossible without access to mature reasoning, and have influenced ideas that children need adult guidance to behave charitably. This article rejects that view, seeing young children as competent moral agents whose impulsive actions are evidence of a morality based on the experience of caring relationships. It draws on a study that sought to discover the nature of this morality in the context of a nursery school. The research found rich evidence of moral interaction among the children that was enabled by their freedom to interact with each other within the confines of a well-resourced environment. It also found that adults had a dichotomous attitude towards the children’s morality. They recognised and supported the children’s moral decision-making during free play but sought to control behaviour during adult-led activities. The article concludes that participatory techniques informed by knowledge about and respect for individual children would enable practitioners to perceive the children’s positive moral agency in all circumstances.