Moral development is a progression from one stage to a different, higher stage of reasoning. One cannot proceed to a higher stage of morality without the accompanying cognitive understanding. Thus, if a child thinks that John, who broke fifteen cups, is more guilty than Henry, who broke one cup, then merely telling the child that Henry's intentions were not as good as John's, and therefore John is not as guilty, is not going to change the child's perceptions. The child's understanding of the situation must be actively changed. One way of doing this is through role-playing. The child who thinks that John is more guilty can be told to act out the two scenes, playing each of the two boys. By asking the child questions about his or her feelings while going through each of the scenes, one can help the child gain empathy (the capacity for experiencing the feelings and thoughts of other people) for each of the characters and a better understanding of intentions and actions. Once the child has the cognitive understanding of intentions, he or she is then able to reason at a higher level of moral development.
In other words, in trying to elevate someone's moral reasoning, the first goal is to elevate his or her cognitive understanding of the situation. This can also be done by citing similar examples within the person's own experience and chaining them to the event at hand. For example, if last week the child had accidentally broken something, asking the child how he or she remembers feeling when that event happened will remind the child of the emotions experienced at the time of the event. The child must then associate the remembered emotions with the situation at hand. This can be accomplished by asking questions, such as "Do you think that John might have felt the same way as you did when you broke the vase?" or "How do you think John felt when the cups fell down? Have you ever felt the same?" If one merely tells the child that John felt bad, the child may or may not comprehend the connection, but if one asks the child to reason through the situation by having empathy for John, then the child is more likely to progress to the next stage of moral reasoning.
This type of empathetic role-playing can be very important in trying to change deviant behavior. If a child is stealing, then having the child imagine or play a role in a situation where he or she is the one being stolen from is the quickest way for the child to change his or her judgments of the right-
ness or wrongness of the situation. Punishment may deter the behavior, but it does not result in a change in cognitive understanding or moral reasoning.
In addition to changing moral reasoning powers, this type of role-playing is also more likely to aid the child from an understimulated home environment. The child whose social environment includes many incidents of undesirable behaviors or who lacks examples of positive behaviors must be stimulated in ways that appeal to current cognitive understanding but that show ways of thinking that differ from current examples in his or her life.
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