Morality in Fours and Fives

At about age five, children move up to a new level of morality. They have a better understanding of the concept of consequences – cause and effect, if/then. They know they can be the cause of positive effects or negative effects. They can cause someone to laugh or to cry, and they generally know which one they’re supposed to do. According to Dr. Lickona, they would define “right” as “doing what I’m told.”

Children in this stage still depend on rules to guide them in knowing and choosing what’s right, and they ask themselves whether they’ll be rewarded or punished for doing whatever they’re considering. The big question is, “Will I get in trouble if I do this?” In Kohlberg’s model of moral development, this stage is characterized by the avoidance of punishment.

The good news is that by this stage children have internalized much of the teaching and training they received in earlier years, and that training is now forming their conscience. If they’ve been taught to respect others, then they know it’s wrong to take toys from other children, it’s right to share, it’s wrong to hit, it’s right to help, and so on. Dr. Robert Solomon, a professor of philosophy, points out that the conscience is, in many ways, the sensibility of “being caught in the act.” In essence, we “catch ourselves.” That’s what moral education does for us. We learn to control ourselves. As Dr. Solomon says, “Our own self-consciousness imposes the internal judgment.”

Of course, children don’t always go by what their developing consciences tell them (and neither do we adults). They share selectively, picking and choosing what to share and when, and they still have trouble seeing from any viewpoint but their own. So they continue to need external help to confirm when they are on the right or wrong track.

This new level of morality is reflected in the way four and five year olds play. Instead of playing “parallel” (side by side but not together) like toddlers do, fours and fives engage in “associative play.” That means they interact cooperatively with other children. “You be the mommy, and I’ll be the baby.” Or “You be the store man, and I’ll come buy some ice cream.” Or “You make the road with the blocks, and I’ll drive my car over it.” This type of interaction requires a level of respect for the other person that indicates a higher level of morality.

With this higher level of morality comes an increasing ability to empathize emotionally with others. Empathy is an important characteristic of a moral person. In the previous stage, it began to develop as perspective-taking, the realization that other people have feelings and opinions and possessions. Now it grows into empathy as children actually begin to understand and be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others.

Fours and fives also begin identifying with the values of the significant people in their lives. A five-year-old may report with shock, “Did you hear the word he said?!” Or “Do you know what movie they’re going to watch tonight?!” Four- and five- year-olds are discovering that not all people share the same values. As for them? They identify with the values of significant adults and use those values as a guide.

To young children, there are no moral nuances. They think in terms of all or nothing. Everything is either bad or good, wrong or right, acceptable or unacceptable, safe or dangerous. There’s nothing in between.

As far as racial awareness goes, Dr. Marguerite Wright has found that children between three and five are becoming aware that people have different skin color, but she says that this awareness comes without prejudice. It’s perceived on the same level as wearing different clothes, says Michele Borba, Building Moral Intelligence. According to Dr. Wright, it’s around age five that children begin to make distinctions in racial differences. But it’s no big deal to them – unless significant adults make it a big deal.

The morality of Fours and Fives:

– starting to sort out fantasy from reality
– strong imagination
– childlike logic, literal thinking
– no moral nuances
– rule dependent
– conscience developing
– identifying with values of significant adults

Conflict: Initiative vs. Guilt

Strength: Purpose

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
All rights reserved.

Top image by Di Lewis from