Catching on, wising up and learning from your mistakes: Young people's accounts of moral development

Holland, J.; Thomson, R.; Henderson, S.; McGrellis, S. and Sharpe, S. (2000). Catching on, wising up and learning from your mistakes: Young people's accounts of moral development. The International Journal of Children's Rights, 8(3) pp. 271–294.



This article examines young people's accounts of their own and others' moral development in Great Britain. The young people understood moral development as a process of moving from the position of a dependent moral learner to an independent moral agent. This process was seen as age related, embodied, and experiential. Through a process of experimentation, of trial and error in recognising and enacting right and wrong which is met with punishment or reward as appropriate, the young person comes to recognise boundaries first set by an authority. The locus of authority moves from being external, where the dependent moral learner trusts in the authority of a teacher, to internal, where trust is in the authority of the self. Crucial elements in this process are trust and reciprocity. As the child moves from dependence on the teacher to dependence on the self, those who wish to have the authority to set moral boundaries must earn respect, and as they wish to be trusted, they must trust in young people. The ubiquitous developmental model of moral development sees the child as in process towards the end of adult moral standing. It is based on an adult subject position, and so when drawn on by young people in their own moral discourse, provides them with no subject position. As a result they find it easier to talk about moral development through descriptions of the behaviour of younger siblings, or themselves when younger, taking the adult subject position.

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