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Moral Development and Emotion

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Children’s concepts of morality are about fairness and the welfare of others. These moral understandings include feelings and emotions associated with experiences of harm, unfairness, selfishness, and loss, as well as kindness, generosity, and fair treatment. William Arsenio and his colleagues (Arsenio & Lover, 1995) have carefully studied how emotion is included in children’s construction of morality and social convention. Experiences of moral transgression are associated with “hot” emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, or outrage. Engaging in morally positive action is associated with happiness and a sense of satisfaction. These feelings are incorporated into the schemes that form the child’s moral understanding. One outcome of this developmental process is that variations in the emotional experiences of children can influence their moral orientations. For example, variations in the child’s temperament (Kochanska, 1993), the amount of anger displayed by adults in reactions to children’s transgressions, or the warmth in reaction to children’s prosocial behavior (Cumberland-Li, Eisenberg, Champion, Gershoff, & Fabes, 2003; Emde, Birigen, Clyman, & Openheim, 1991) appear to affect the way in which children construct their basic concepts of the social world and how to react to social situations.

The development of morality in children is supported by environments in which the child experiences emotional warmth and fairness. Growing up in such an environment increases the chance that a child will construct a view of the social world based on “goodwill” (Arsenio & Lover, 1995). This goodwill goes along with the positive feelings and happiness that children experience when they engage in acts of kindness and helping (Eisenberg, 1986). In contrast, children with long-term patterns of victimization and peer rejection tend to establish a pattern of “ill will” distorting the construction of moral reciprocity in support of aggressive actions toward others (Arsenio & Lover, 1995). In summary, a climate of predictability, trust, emotional warmth, and reciprocity are the key elements to establishing a pattern of goodwill (Arsenio & Lover, 1995) conducive to the emergence of the moral self (Noam, 1993).

From the perspective of the classroom teacher, this effect of early emotional experience helps to explain the variations they observe in children’s tendencies to respond to peers in fair and caring, or aggressive ways. It also means that an important element of a teacher’s approach to children’s moral and social growth is the establishment of a classroom climate that maximizes the likelihood that students will experience goodwill during their time at school.

The importance of an emotionally supportive environment has not been lost on proponents of moral education. For some educators the establishment of a caring environment and an overall “ethic of care” is the most essential component of moral education (Noddings, 2002). A child who develops a caring orientation is able to care for others, and is also able to accept care from others. This requires a school and classroom climate in which students can afford to be emotionally vulnerable, and in which that vulnerability extends to the student’s willingness to risk engagement in acts of kindness and concern for others (Noddings, 2002).

An ethic of care is related to a more general approach to the school and classroom environment around the establishment of relationships based on trust (Watson, 2003). Trust carries with it the emotional connections of care integrated with moral reciprocity and continuity. Thus trust corresponds essentially to what Arsenio and Lover describe as an “orientation of goodwill.” Trust is basic to the construction of an overall sense of school or classroom community that in turn is one of the primary predictors of prosocial conduct in schools (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997).

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