Moral Development of Children Under 6

In a Montessori community, we typically associate moral development with the Elementary years and beyond, when children have developed the reasoning abilities and interests to tackle moral issues. However, the foundation for moral behavior begins well before the age of 6 and is part of the everyday experience of St. Catherine’s students, both in the classroom and in the Atrium. In her February Parent Education seminar, Primary guide Cynthia Blessman discussed ways to nurture budding morality at school and at home in today’s technology-driven culture.

The word “morality” comes from the Latin “moralis,” meaning “custom.” Learning the morals of society is part of the child’s adaptation to social life and culture, and begins at birth. By morality, we do not mean an internalized penal code, but rather, as Sofia Cavalletti observes, “an orientation of the whole person in life, the leaning forward of the being toward a point.”

The young child hasn’t yet developed a moral conscience. Rather, the child’s fundamental need is to be loved with a protective love, and her early experiences of loving relationships become the foundation of morality. Relationships begin with the love between mother and child, but also include extended family, neighborhoods, and other communities such as the Infant and Primary classrooms here at school. Because children of this age absorb everything around them, they are internalizing the religious values, ethical behavior, and empathetic attitudes exhibited by the adults around them. They develop a feeling for what is good when adults treat them kindly in a warm, safe environment.

Children are also in relationship with God from the time of birth. Our main goal through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum is helping to develop that love through enjoyment of the world and the recognition that God is always seeking us. With that in mind, God is presented to our youngest children as a loving and non-judgmental partner. Biblical stories, such as the Parable of the Mustard Seed, are shared to inspire a sense of wonder and connection.

The Importance of Concentration and Active Work

Montessori recognized that concentration is the basis for all advances in development, including moral behavior. The Primary classroom is designed to give children frequent opportunities to do purposeful work with their hands, achieving concentration and a synchrony of mental and physical energies. This work—which Montessori viewed as a spiritual exercise—helps children develop patience, politeness and respect.

As they become increasingly proficient and practiced at making choices and judgments, children begin to trust themselves more, go to the guide less frequently, and turn their attention to mentoring friends. Work motivates further work, giving children greater confidence and liberty.

It’s worth considering the opportunities your child has at home to concentrate. Also, what kinds of discussion come up in your house about work? Work for children of this age does not mean using a computer, a remote control, or any version of swiping and typing. Despite the flood of marketing suggesting otherwise, screen technologies offer a level of abstraction that is of little use to young children. Much recent research has confirmed that passively hearing and observing human behavior through a screen or on a screen is not the same as interacting with live human beings.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media exposure (even secondhand) to children under 2. Still, more than 90 percent of parents report that children younger than 2 watch some form of electronic media. By the age of 3, almost 1/3 of children have a TV in their room. Additionally, more than 80,000 apps are marketed as “educational” with little research into the validity of their quality.

Educational psychologist and author Jane Healy responds: “If we allow our children to be raised and educated by machines, we should not be surprised if they grow up without humanity. And it seems to me that the potential for peace in the world springs directly from our own humanity, which is directly related to the ability of the human brain to find peace within itself.”

Although technology and media can be useful tools for adults and older children when responsibly used, this is a powerful reminder that we should minimize the use of screens, electronic toys, and phones—particularly with our youngest children. Rather, we should promote active engagement with loved ones and the surrounding environment.

Moral Development and Social Structure

Children’s moral development is tied to their social development. In order to live together harmoniously as a community, we need a set of rules. In the Primary classroom, a few ground rules help children develop the patience and concern for others required for moral behavior. These are:

  1. Children are free to choose their own activity after being introduced. This freedom is essential so each child can choose what is needed for self-construction based on her own development.

  2. Only one of each activity is available in the Prepared Environment. This requires that children learn to wait and to come up with alternative activities.

  3. Children may use material for as long or short a period of time as they wish. This also teaches patience and inhibition of impulses. “We cannot teach this kind of morality to a child of 3, but experience can.” – Maria Montessori

  4. Each activity must be returned ready for the next person. This encourages respect, morality, and a spirit of community because children are asked to look beyond their own immediate desires. With time and repetition, this regard for others becomes a joyful part of life.

  5. Children are free to move and talk. They can choose partners and friends of different ages and gender. The mixed-age group in the classroom offers a large number of individual differences, breeding tolerance, collaboration, protection, admiration, and an appreciation and celebration of differences.

  6. Children are allowed to solve their problems by themselves. In fact, adults should discipline themselves to observe instead of interfere.

In addition to setting these ground rules, Primary guides also help children identify their feelings, offering the language needed to communicate with others. Gradually the children come to feel part of a group. As they progress in their social awareness, they begin to act more thoughtfully and with the benefit of others in mind.

Ways to Promote Moral Development and Pro-social Behavior

Thinking about the kinds of ground rules and communication used in the classroom can help you think about strategies for encouraging moral development at home. Parenting author Alfie Kohn offers some great suggestions, including:

  • Offering a warm, nurturing, empathetic relationship between parent and child. A parent must help the child to assume that the world is a benevolent, safe place in which to act and consistently model helping and caring behavior. (We take this a step further at St. Catherine’s by emphasizing a loving relationship with God.)
  • Consistently behaving in a moral manner. Always tell the truth in front of your child (Young children don’t see degrees of lies such as white lies). Look for ways to model patience, integrity and honesty at the grocery store, while driving, taking care of pets, etc.
  • Teaching respect through your parenting style. Authoritative parents are warm and responsive as well as firm and directive. The direct guidance of authoritative parenting communicates disapproval of disrespectful behavior by giving a brief explanation to avoid mindless obedience and encourage respect.


Some additional tips from Ms. Cynthia’s talk include:

  • Model respect when speaking to young children by bending down to the child’s level, acknowledging feelings and concerns rather than dismissing them, and using an appropriate voice for the situation.
  • Use positive discipline instead of punishment (don’t teach “might makes right.”) “No one who has ever done anything great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a ‘reward’ or by the fear of what we call punishment…Every victory and every advance in human progress comes from some inner compulsion.” – Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child
  • Help children use moral behavior. Offer opportunities to care for pets, babysit, etc. Encourage your child to come up with ways to make reparation if he hurts someone or something. Instead of forcing your child to make an immediate apology, guide them to understanding their behavior. Keep tools like brooms, dustpans and spill buckets on hand for clean up, or suggest that children offer an ice pack to a friend who is hurt. Children then see themselves as helpful, caring people.
  • Don’t go overboard with praise. Instead of immediately reacting with praise, try to acknowledge and contemplate your child’s behavior instead. For example, “I see what you did. I see you helped your brother. He looks really happy.”
  • When—not if—your child makes a mistake, realize that mistakes are part of learning and growth. Many times in life, we learn the most from the times we made mistakes.
  • Encourage cooperation rather than competition. Studies indicate that competition may serve to suppress generosity to others to a greater extent than cooperation serves to enhance it. Keep in mind that the values and norms of American culture have more to do with competitive success than with helping and caring, so raising children who care is an enormously difficult undertaking.
  • Provide purposeful work to give children a sense of confidence and competence, and an awareness that their efforts contribute to the well-being of others. They are respected members of a community.
  • Discourage aggression. Parents should have and communicate a deeply felt disapproval of hurting others. Explaining why hurting others is undesirable is more effective than responding punitively.


Questions to Ask About Children’s Media Use

  • How is it being used?
  • What is it replacing? As media researcher Frederick Zimmerman notes, “Kids need laps, not apps. You can’t replace the human imagination, there’s no app for that.” Additionally, downtime and even boredom are necessary for brain development and creative thinking. Unfortunately, it has becoming increasingly common for young children to not understand basic parts of human experience, such as daydreaming.
  • Who is advocating it? Is it a marketer or child development professional offering advice? “We’re conducting the world’s greatest experiment in real time on our children.” – Liz Perle, cofounder and editor in chief of Common Sense Media
  • Does it encourage extrinsic or intrinsic motivation? Many games/apps offer unrelated extrinsic rewards that are detrimental to spontaneous interest and the kinds of motivation we inspire in the classroom.
  • Does it offer chances for active engagement? There is a sensitive period for refinement of the senses that ends around the age of 4 to 4 ½. All senses must be developed in a physical, 3-dimensional environment. Screens deprive children of learning by doing. “In order to develop a rich and ordered mind, children need to be in touch with reality.” – Maria Montessori

Additional Reading

(Many titles are also available in our parent library.)

Ekman, Paul. Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness.

Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish. Siblings Without Rivalry.

Kohn, Alfie. The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life.

Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Kohn, Alfie. “Raising Children Who Care.” The NAMTA Journal, Spring 2000.

Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting.

Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind.

Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child.

Rosenberg, Marshall B. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life.

Travis, Allyn. “The Development of Morality in the First and Second Planes of Development.” AMI/USA News, March 2006.