The Development of Morality Versus the Development of Faith

(The post today is about morality and faith and big issues.  It is not meant to be inflammatory in any way, and if this topic does not interest you, or is upsetting to you, please do feel free to skip it and come back for a different post next time!  And, as always, please choose to take what resonates with you and your family and your personal faith and your own journey and leave the rest here!)

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I received a copy of Kenneth Taylor’s children’s book “Right Choices.”  I assumed this book would not bother me.

This book really bothered me.

The  book, I felt,  just really hit small children over the head with situations where the children make good and bad choices and then bible quotes.   It was so cut and dry, and so moralistic and so pointed and direct.   It bothered me for those reasons,  but I could not figure out why it bothered me so much more than that for several years now.  And now I just figured it out in the midst of reading another wonderful book called, “Helping Our Children Grow in Faith,” by Robert Keeley.  It is written from a Reformed Christian perspective, so it may not be of interest to everyone, but I found a bunch of things in it that made me go “A-HA!”

Keeley writes about the development of MORALITY and the development of FAITH and how these are not the same things at all. 

He writes about the development of faith as according to James Fowler.  There are six stages, and some of them overlap certain ages:

Stage 1 – Intuitive-Projective Faith (ages 2-6).  Filled with fantasy, powerful images, and imagination.  The child reflects the parents’ faith.

Stage 2 – Mythic-Literal Faith (ages 6-12).  The circle of influence widens to include other people besides the parents.  Faith at this stage is pretty straightforward and includes few “gray areas”

Stage 3- Synthetic-Conventional Faith (ages 12-???)  The importance of belonging to a group typifies this stage for adolescents; for adults in this stage belonging to a community of other people who have the same beliefs is important

Stage 4- Individuative-Reflective Faith (ages 18-???)  In this stage people take personal responsibility for their own faith, often questioning and exploring and figuring out what they truly believe.

Stage 5- Conjunctive Faith (ages 30-???) In this stage people find that many of the faith practices that they threw off or discarded during the previous period may be more valuable than they originally thought.  This is the stage where people “own their own faith.”

Stage 6- Universalizing Faith (ages?????)  Faith becomes a commitment, more than a set of beliefs.  Few people ever reach this stage.

Contrast this to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development:

Stage 1-avoiding punishment (You make moral judgments based on if you will get “punished” or not)

Stage 2-reciprocity (You make moral judgments on the basis of satisfying your own needs and wants)

Stage 3-good boy/nice girls (People make moral judgments on the basis of wanting others to think they are nice people)

Stage 4- law and order (People make judgments based on the basis of external authority).

Stage 5- social contract and individual rights (People make more judgments based upon the principles behind the law, not so much the laws)

Stage 6 – universal ethical principles (People make moral judgments based on self-chosen ethical principles, such as human rights and the dignity of all people.

Until about age 7 or 8, the source of authority in making moral judgments is SELF-INTEREST.  There is so much going on these days with teaching small children about the environment, and homelessness and other social justice topics.  Many of you know I frequently meditate on social justice topics, but guess what?  A child is not going to make moral judgments based upon universal ethical principles at this point – they are going to make judgments of being in the moment, for self interest.  Even according to Piaget, children of this age, up to 7 or 8, really do not have the mental ability to put themselves in someone else’s perspective. 

(And you may say, well Carrie, my child can do this!   And I am here to tell you most likely that is a firstborn oldest girl whom you have probably talked a lot with!  I wrote in one of my other recent posts how we place, often unconsciously, a large amount of pressure on our eldest girls when they are six, seven and eight and really do expect them to be more mature than they are….So if your child can do this skill, that really, according to every expert out there, is not where a seven or eight year old should even be, then I suggest you make sure to give them plenty of opportunities to be a child!  Don’t expect them to be a ten year old in a six year old body, please!)

Anyway, Keeley goes on to write that to help children grow in faith, we cannot do this by  merely giving them a list of do’s and don’ts “masquerading as stories of real people” (ie, bible stories or stories from your faith tradition where we are knocked over the head with someone’s moral interpretation of it.)

He writes,

“It is important we do not reduce the Bible to a set of moral tales, while still helping our children grow up with a clear sense of right and wrong.

When we turn Bible stories into moral tales for small children, we realize, at best, we are hoping to influence their most basic instincts and convince them that it is in their best interest to be “good”.  Influencing moral behavior is not the same as building faith.  A church program that emphasizes moral behavior at the expense of the cognitive and relational aspects of faith is missing the point.

I think we tend to focus a lot of our teaching on moral behavior for a couple of reasons.  First of all, moral behavior is something we can see.  We know we’ve succeeded in teaching children how to be good if they behave themselves.  A [living faith] is a tougher thing to observe, but far more important.  Second despite being less important than [a living faith], moral behavior is important.  We want our children to behave because we want them to have successful lives, we want to enjoy being around them, and it’s the right thing to do.”

So, I think I figured out that that children’ book bothered me 1- because in my view it is not developmentally appropriate for the pre-school audience it was intended for 2 – sometimes just knowing the stories and events of your faith is enough for small children, there are places where the story  is just enough.  Some of the stories from your faith may have a moral, some may be history with meaning and direction for us in the present, some of it shows people’s faith – not all of it was written down to illustrate a clear moral tale in my view at least.  3- the development of faith and morality are not necessarily the same or are even mixed well.  4.  Moralizing a  story reduces it, to me, as Keeley says, “one “right” way of interpreting what happened.”  Whereas a lesson in faith is more a “reflection on the story that helps us think about who God is, who we are, or what our relationship with God is.”  He talks about the importance of WONDERING during these stories with small children – not a quiz to see if they were listening, but a true wondering where there really is no answer. He provides some examples in his book, and the book “Young Children and Worship” also has examples in it.

This book provided me with incredible food for thought on some of these tough issues.  I hope it will lead you to think as well how you are developing and treating issues of moral judgment with your small children and how you are looking toward developing your child’s faith life if that is important to you and your family.  Steiner felt religious development was extremely important in the ages of 7-14, not necessarily picking a religion, but that development of what he called the “supersensible.”  Melisa Nielsen of A Little Garden Flower has said she felt Steiner spent way more time thinking about God, the angels and such than such elemental beings as gnomes, which seems to be what he is associated with to some people.  She has a lot of wonderful things to say about this subject, do go check her website out! (

All food for thought with peace and joy,



2 thoughts on “The Development of Morality Versus the Development of Faith

  1. Pingback: Starting Christian Education With Very Small Children in the Waldorf Home « The Parenting Passageway

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