A five-year-old boy swipes the coins his mother has left on her desk. As it happens, the mother knows exactly how much she has put there in preparation for a trip to the Laundromat. She confronts the little boy, who says he didn’t take the money—but there lies the exact amount of the missing money right on his pillow. The mother gives him a serious talking-to, then sends him to his room, telling him to come out only when he can say why he should not have taken the coins. After some minutes, he emerges in tears, but is able to state what was wrong with what he did: “Ya get in trouble!”

This vignette contains many elements common to the moral instruction of secular and religious families alike. The child did not plan to break any rules, but he was not able to resist temptation when it occurred. The offense was only a minor inconvenience to the mother at the time, but she wanted to respond appropriately because she was concerned that the child not take other people’s property in the future. She was influenced by what she feared was the development of an undesirable pattern of behavior and so was unwilling to let the incident pass. She believed the child was old enough to think through the situation, but she was also willing to accept a very simple rationale when the child offered it.

The early development of moral thinking and moral behavior choices is largely based on brief interactions like this one. Children do childish wrong things, and parents provide ad hoc corrections. In early and middle childhood, parents are quite unlikely to instruct children on major moral issues, because the children are unlikely to do things that obviously involve major issues in a direct way. It is probably safe to say that no parent gives direct training on avoiding the most serious moral lapses—“Sally, when you go out to play, I don’t want you to murder anybody. And, Timmy, no raping—I don’t care what the other boys do, it’s not nice to rape people.” Nevertheless, few adults commit murder or rape, in part because they received direct instruction about related minor matters like hitting or pulling another child’s pants down—instruction from which abstract moral principles may be derived as the child’s reasoning ability matures. The whole process is a gradual one involving repeated experiences, rather than memorization of a list of “right things” and “wrong things,” or the early mastery of universal principles.

Whether a family is secular or religious in beliefs, the basic processes of moral training and development are probably pretty similar. One college student, brought up in a devout Catholic family, responded to this idea with a disbelieving exclamation: “How can they develop morally if they’re brought up without any values!” Of course, every family has a set of values, although the parents might have trouble stating just what they are, and every family has an interest in passing on a value system to the next generation. Although some families admire criminal or simply underhanded behavior and encourage it in their children, most families in a cultural group want to foster socially desirable behaviors: some degree of truthfulness; some willingness to sacrifice for others; some concern with others’ property rights; and, later on, some caution about sexual activity. Background values are different, however. In nonsecular families, supernatural entities and events are presented as reasons for complying with rules about behavior; in secular families, compliance is connected with overarching principles related to human needs and experiences, such as individual autonomy, equal rights of human beings, and freedom of conscience.1 Religious families may find it easier to state the connection between values and behavior than do secular families, who are generally thinking in terms of highly abstract principles rather than of nonhuman entities who can be presented as having personal wishes and emotions. But all families function to help establish children’s ways of thinking about moral issues, emotions connected with morality, and behavior patterns related to value judgments.

The Development of Moral Reasoning

The term moral development describes the fact that children’s moral behavior and thinking change with age in predictable ways. Developmental changes of all kinds can be studied empirically, and many aspects of development have proven to follow systematic pathways, so that most human beings go through the same developmental steps, often at similar ages. Empirical studies of moral development have most often focused on changes in moral reasoning, the kind of thinking that underlies decisions about moral issues. The best-known theory of developmental change in moral reasoning comes from the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who studied the process by presenting children with moral dilemmas—problems where two decisions seemed equally desirable—and asking them to explain why they made the choice they did.2 Kohlberg felt that the development of moral reasoning could be described as involving six stages. (Because Kohlberg’s method involved talking about a problem, the first stage could not be identified until the child could talk well, which would not occur until at least age three for most children.)

The earliest stage Kohlberg described was one in which right and wrong are defined by punishment rather than by any larger principle. If something is followed by punishment, it was wrong; if it is not, it was right. The light-fingered five-year-old mentioned before was at this stage. A second stage considers reward as an important indication that something is right. The stress in these early stages is on works, not faith: Rightness or wrongness is identified in terms of what a person actually does, not what he or she intended but was unable to perform.

A third stage described by Kohlberg involves social approval and disapproval. By this point, the child separates moral correctness from specific punishment or reward. The moral choice is instead the one that makes other people consider someone a nice boy or a good girl. Continuing with the stress on community approval, a fourth stage emphasizes the existence of laws or rules that are valuable in themselves; breaking a rule is morally wrong simply because it is a rule, not because of the possible consequences for the rule breaker or for others.

Very few individuals would move beyond this fourth stage during childhood, but in adolescence or afterward a number of people will achieve a “social contract” level of moral reasoning, in which laws and rules are seen as desirable for the comfort of the community but potentially changeable if they do not work well. Moral decisions can involve complying with rules or working to change them. A final stage, not likely to be reached before late adolescence, involves thinking in terms of universal ethical principles such as the value of human life; decisions to support a universal principle could be made in spite of others’ finding one “not nice” or even in the face of certain punishment under the laws.

Most descriptions of developmental change involve steps that are typical of all human beings. Kohlberg’s theory is somewhat different, however. This approach suggests everyone follows moral development in the same sequence, but people do not necessarily arrive at the same step at the same age, and some may never reach the higher stages. Certainly, a number of adults do not appear ever to go beyond the second stage posited by Kohlberg, and the “official morality” of the United States appears to be somewhere between the fourth (“law and order”) and the fifth (“social contract”) stages. These facts raise a question about advanced development in moral reasoning: Are there experiences that help people achieve these higher stages?

imageContrary to traditional beliefs, frequent punishment and the assertion of parental authority are not factors that facilitate growth in moral reasoning.image

Family actions do seem to be related to the development of moral reasoning. Contrary to traditional beliefs, frequent punishment and the assertion of parental authority are not factors that facilitate growth in moral reasoning. Parents of children with advanced moral reasoning are more likely to be authoritative (taking charge, but without an overly strict or punitive approach) than authoritarian. Authoritative parenting fosters cognitive development in general, so it is not surprising that moral reasoning, a type of cognitive skill, is also facilitated.

Advances in moral reasoning are also associated with exposure to parental discussion of moral uncertainties and to equal sharing of power between parents, which leads to frequent negotiation and compromise.3

Intriguing as it is, Kohlberg’s theory is far from a complete description of moral development; for example, women and girls are not usually assessed as highly advanced moral reasoners in Kohlberg’s model. And, of course, moral reasoning is not the whole story of moral development. Decisions about moral behavior involve motivation to do what is right as well as the ability to apply moral principles in thought.

Emotion and Moral Development

Looking at moral development from the viewpoint of moral reasoning showed us stages of morality beginning in the nursery school years. When we consider the emotional aspects of morality, however, we must go back to an astonishingly early period of development—even as far back as early infancy, when the first social relationships begin to form. This statement is particularly true of values based on human needs and rights, because events during infancy provide the foundation for our understanding of others’ feelings and our wish to comfort and help them.

Infants in the first few months of life have little ability to understand facial expressions or other indications of emotion, but they already react very differently to human beings than they do to inanimate objects, even moving ones. If they have frequent experiences with sensitive, responsive adult caregivers, infants soon begin to notice emotional cues. For example, an infant responds by beginning to cry if an adult simply turns a blank face toward the baby and does not respond to smiles or vocal sounds. By seven or eight months, an infant confronted with some surprising new object turns to look at a familiar caregiver’s face; if the caregiver looks frightened, the baby backs away from the object, but if the caregiver looks happy, the baby goes on to investigate. The baby is beginning to develop an essential set of skills, sometimes categorized as theory of mind.4 Theory of mind allows each person to be aware that behind every human face is an individual set of experiences, wishes, beliefs, and thoughts; that each of these sets is in some ways similar to and in other ways different from one’s own set; and that facial expressions and other cues can enable each of us to know something of how others feel and what they are going to do. The development of theory of mind has already begun by 9 or 10 months, when a well-developed baby can already show the important step of joint attention. In this behavior, the child uses eye contact and movement of the gaze to get an adult to look at some sight that interests the baby and then to look back again, to gaze at each other and smile with mutual pleasure. Importantly, not only can the child do this, but he or she wants to do it, demonstrating the very early motivation to share our happiness with others—surely the foundation of empathic responses. Without this early development, it would hardly be possible to achieve secular values such as a concern with equal rights, a principle based on the understanding that all human beings have similar experiences of pleasure and pain.

How does this complex and early developmental process occur? Does it simply unfold, or does experience with others play an important role? This question is more complicated than it appears because some individuals, often characterized as autistic, do not seem to develop theory of mind, even though they have normal experiences.5 For most infants, however, there seems to be an initial component of being especially interested in human beings, and this is followed by many experiences of predictable interactions with caregivers, so that a facial expression or tone of voice becomes a signal that the adult is about to do certain things. Ideally, the caregiver also responds in a predictable way to the baby’s signals of smiling or reaching or turning the eyes away. Unfortunately, many babies are exposed to the much less responsive and predictable demeanor of a mother who suffers from a perinatal mood disorder or who is involved with drugs or alcohol. They may also spend many hours in poor-quality child-care arrangements, with repeated changes of foster family so that no one learns to “read” the baby’s expression, or with caregivers who mistakenly believe that responding to the baby’s emotional expressions will cause “spoiling.” Theory of mind is facilitated by responsive nurturing and the devoted care of adults who value infants as members of the human species.

Early steps in theory of mind seem to be essential to the growth of the empathic attitudes that are a basic part of humanistic values. However, the first steps are not the end of the process. Experiences in the toddler and early preschool period provide a watershed for the development of empathic behavior. It is important to realize that the distress of another person does not provide a simple signal calling for a simple response. Distress causes complex facial expressions and behavior patterns that call out ambivalent reactions in young children and in adults. People who like clowns find their sad faces funny; many of us have horrified ourselves by laughing quite inappropriately at a funeral; a common trigger for child abuse is the child’s crying. The appearance of distress can call out an impulse to help but can also create amusement or even the wish to attack the troubled person. What makes some human beings more likely to respond compassionately to distress, others more likely to laugh or attack? This is a difficult topic to study systematically, but it is thought that experience with caregivers helps to establish an individual’s compassionate or aggressive response to distress signals. When the young child is distressed, a caregiver’s kind or hostile response models the appropriate way to act when others are uncomfortable. Nurturing, responsive caregivers are likely to help children become compassionate, and unsympathetic caregivers guide children toward an aggressive response to others’ distress. Perhaps the worst model is the adult who teases and torments a child into a tearful rage and then dismisses or even punishes the distressed child as “a big baby.”

Guidance, Discipline, and Moral Development

As a child develops theory of mind and the capacity for emotional empathy, and as moral reasoning progresses to more advanced stages, parental guidance provides specific information about right and wrong behavior. (Incidentally, the actions that are considered right or wrong will change as the child gets older—for example, a toddler might be punished for trying to pick up a crying infant, but a ten-year-old praised.) Such guidance helps to establish knowledge about specific behaviors that can eventually be used to derive abstract principles of morality.

Although the behavior of parents serves as an important role model for children, few families rely on modeling alone as a way to shape children’s behavior. And, although parents may prefer to praise and reward approved behavior, few manage to raise children without some use of punishment. For secular families, this fact may be problematic, because the use of punishment by persons in authority appears to be in conflict with humanistic principles such as the autonomy of the individual. Nevertheless, it is clear that when a parent is dealing with a young, relatively nonverbal child who is doing something dangerous to himself or painful to others, punishment may be the quickest, most effective way to stop the behavior, and thus to work toward understanding of related moral issues.

Punishment need not be physical in nature, although physical restraint or removal of the child from the scene may be part of the parent’s action. Punishment may simply involve the parent’s communication of anger or sadness and interruption of the behavior (which the child presumably wanted to carry out). To be effective, punishment must be highly consistent—if there is a rule, it always applies. The timing of punishment is critical, and it is by far the most effective if it occurs just as the undesirable behavior begins. If punishment is swift and sure, it need not be severe, and in fact milder forms of punishment, which do not trigger an intense emotional reaction, are more likely to teach effectively. These points about punishment suggest that the most effective parents will be those who plan their use of guidance techniques, who are consistently attentive to the child’s behavior, and who respond predictably even when they find it inconvenient or boring to do so.

Parental guidance techniques are also associated with moral development as factors in the establishment of the social emotions. These emotions occur in response to the child’s awareness of others’ evaluation of her, and they appear in the late toddler/early preschool period. One approach to the social emotions classifies these feelings as either positive or negative, and as either global or specific, yielding four basic social emotions that occur in response to awareness of others’ opinions.6 The child may experience guilt, an unpleasant feeling of having failed in some specific way; shame, an unpleasant feeling of having been judged as globally bad or wrong; pride, a pleasant sense of having received approval for a specific action or characteristic; and hubris, a pleasant but unrealistic feeling of global approval by others. Of these emotions, guilt and pride are useful guides to good behavior because they involve specific acts that can be avoided or repeated in the future. Shame and hubris are far less useful because the individual has no control over the nature of the self and cannot change the basic self to gain approval or avoid disapproval. In fact, the response to shame may be one of helpless terror and rage, as destruction of the self seems to be the only way of escape from the judgment. In older children and adults, shame experiences may be triggered easily by events that imply “disrespect,” and extreme antisocial reactions may result.

This view of the social emotions suggests that moral development would be fostered best by parenting that stresses pride and guilt rather than hubris and shame. Such parenting involves mild punishment that does not overwhelm the child with fear and anger, and careful verbal communication that clarifies for the child exactly what was bad or good in his behavior. Parents who work toward desirable social emotions need to have insight into their own reactions of approval or disapproval. Parental reactions of contempt or disgust toward the child are difficult for the child to process as connected with specific actions, and they may pass unexplained if the parent is only vaguely aware of their attitude; a pervasive sense of shame is a likely outcome if there are many experiences of this type.

As a general rule, parenting practices seem to support desirable behavior and moral development best when they involve mild emotion that does not threaten the child’s autonomy. Messages to the child are most effective when they are understandable but indirect and have some humorous component.7 Parenting practices are less successful when they involve a high degree of psychological intrusiveness or attempts to control the child’s beliefs and emotions through psychological means such as threatened withdrawal of love. Although effective parental control of children’s behavior (like demanding mature behavior) has positive outcomes, psychological intrusiveness results in a higher number of emotional and behavior problems, and this is, surprisingly, particularly true when a high level of parental affection is also present.8

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Secular
Approach to Moral Development

Are there differences between secular and nonsecular families in the fostering of children’s moral development? There is no recent evidence that seems to support the superiority of one group or the other. The development of emotional components of morality, such as empathy, begins so early that it is doubtful that family beliefs play a significant role. As for discipline and guidance practices, these are probably similar in families with various beliefs, except that a small number of religious fundamentalists stress “breaking the child’s will” and try to establish complete obedience from the age of a few months.9 It is possible that secular humanist principles such as individual autonomy and equal rights may reduce secular families’ use of punishment, or at least point up the need for reasoning and discussion of behavior issues in addition to reward and punishment.

The major difference that might be expected to result from contrasting beliefs has to do with moral reasoning. Whereas nonsecular families may choose to stress reasoning in terms of the punishments or rewards available from supernatural entities or their agents (which they do not necessarily do), such ploys would be most unlikely among secular parents. Secular families base their standards on overarching ethical principles that may be highly abstract and that are connected to specific behaviors through extensive reasoning. Because discussion of moral issues in the family encourages advanced moral development, it is possible that children of secular families have an advantage here.

imageSecular families base their standards on overarching ethical principles . . . that are connected to specific behaviors through extensive reasoning. Because discussion of moral issues in the family encourages advanced moral development, it is possible that children of secular families have an advantage.image

Are there disadvantages in a secular approach to moral development? The one obvious problem has to do with the need for a community that shares and reinforces the family’s values. Although the earliest steps in moral development occur within the family, older children and adolescents come into increasing contact with the standards of the surrounding community. The issue here is not so much that the children will abandon the family’s values as that family members may feel isolated or even beleaguered by value conflicts with neighbors. Nevertheless, if this situation is handled well by secular parents, value disagreements may be turned to advantage through family discussion and opportunities to model advanced moral reasoning.

JEAN MERCER is a developmental psychologist with a doctorate from Brandeis University, professor emerita at Richard Stockton College, and a founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine. Her book Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments (2014) is her latest contribution in the fight against attachment therapy, a cultlike belief system that encourages intrusive and harmful physical practices in the guise of child psychotherapy.




If the Lord, who could surely afford it,

Were a little bit more democratic,

That is, if the Lord didn’t lord it

And weren’t so doggone dogmatic,

The world would be one bed of roses,

Sweet psyches and better digestions

If the tablets he handed to Moses

Were inscribed not commands but suggestions.1

EDGAR YIPSEL “YIP” HARBURG, among the greatest and most beloved lyricists of the 20th century, was also a nonbeliever and a secular parent. Author of such classics as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” “April in Paris,” and “Paper Moon,” Yip created lyrics and poems that were brilliant and unbearably clever. He often addressed serious social issues, such as war, intolerance, and injustice, with incisive and devastating wit.

The five poems appearing in this book are excerpted from Rhymes for the Irreverent, a collaboration between the Harburg Foundation and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and are reprinted with their kind permission.


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