The Moral Self and Acquistion of Values in Children (page 2)
One important ingredient in self-development is the acquisition of values. Colby and Damon (1992) found that adults who lead exemplary lives tend to have very clear beliefs about what is right, and they consider those beliefs to be a central feature of their own identities. Their self-esteem hinges on acting in responsible ways, consistent with their beliefs. Even for children in the middle years, behavioral conduct is an important self-concept domain that is linked to global self-esteem. Generally, moral beliefs are increasingly central to self-definition as children get older, influencing them to act in responsible ways, but as Damon points out,
the development of the self can take many paths, and persons vary widely in the extent to which they look to their commitments and convictions in defining their personal identities. . . . For some . . . morality may always remain peripheral to who they think they are. (Damon, 1995, p. 141)
Let’s begin by specifying what we mean by a moral sense, or morality. First, it is a capacity to make judgments about what is right versus what is wrong, and second, it is preferring to act in ways that are judged to be “right.” In other words, morality involves both an “evaluative orientation” toward actions and events (Damon, 1988) and a sense of obligation or commitment to behave in ways that are consistent with what is right. Early on, this sense of obligation is partly influenced by rewards or punishments from parents, teachers, and other adults. Gradually, a slate of standards and principles—a conscience—is internalized and becomes the primary guide to action, so that a moral adult could even behave in ways that are disapproved by others if she judged the behavior to be right.
It is also important to recognize that moral development and religious experience are not the same thing. Religions do, of course, address issues of morality, and they prescribe standards of conduct. But moral development is part of normal self-development in all individuals, regardless of whether or not they are practitioners of a religious faith or whether or not they receive formal religious training.
It is not surprising that parents regard the development of morality as a critical concern. Even though there are cultural and historical variations in the specifics of what is construed as moral, the meaning of morality generally includes some social interactive principles or propensities that are necessary to the successful functioning of all societies and of individuals within society (see Damon, 1988; Turiel, 1998). First, concern for others is important, as well as a willingness to act on that concern by sharing, forgiving, and other acts of benevolence. Second, a sense of justice and fairness, including a willingness to take into account the rights and needs of all parties, is part of a moral sense. Third, trustworthiness, defined primarily as honesty in dealings with others, is critical to most discussions of morality. Finally, self-control is essential. To live by standards requires a capacity and willingness to inhibit one’s own selfish or aggressive impulses under some circumstances, that is, to avoid misbehavior. This is one aspect of self-control. Also, to be a useful member of society, or even to fully develop one’s talents or abilities, requires effort and persistence regardless of discomfort or difficulty. This is a second aspect of self-control—a willingness to do things that are not much fun, such as work and practicing skills, even when play is more enticing. For example, there may be no exciting way to learn multiplication tables. Hard work and self-control are necessary to achieve long-term goals at any point in the life span. Research on the development of morality has largely focused on this set of fundamentals: concern for others, justice, trustworthiness or honesty, and self-control.
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