The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Teaching Responsibility for Actions —Moral Autonomy

It is time for adults to become concerned for the  education
of  the  whole child.   The tendency seems to be to take care  of
parts  of a child’s total development while the rest is  left  to
chance.    The   best   example  of  this  an  over-concern   for
intellectual  development  which can be evaluated  by  scores  on
tests while the physical, social, emotional and moral development
is neglected.  As a result, we are producing children who develop
into immature adults and never reach their potential.

 The  aim of education, according to Jean Piaget,  is  moral
and  intellectual  autonomy.  Autonomy means  being  governed  by
oneself  and  is  the opposite of  heteronomy  which  means  being
governed be someone else.   

 All  babies are born helpless and need to be taken care  of
and  governed  by adults.  As they move  toward  adulthood,  they
should  become  increasingly autonomous.  To the  extent  that  a
child  becomes  able to govern himself, he is  governed  less  by
other  people.  According to Piaget, children learn moral  values
by constructing them from within, based on interactions with  the
environment.   They need to be given opportunities to put  things
into relationships through social interactions.  

     Dr. Constance Kamii, an authority on the ideas of  Jean
Piaget,  feels  that  children  need to   be  helped  to  develop
intellectual  autonomy.  This means being governed by oneself  in
the  intellectual realm.  People who have acquired this  autonomy             
do  not  accept  unquestioningly what they  are  told,  including
slogans  and  propaganda.   Instead of  requiring  that  children
arrive  at  the right answer, teachers would be more  helpful  if
they  asked how the children arrived at the answer.  If  a  child
adds incorrectly, and the only response is that the teacher marks
it wrong, the child is given the erroneous message that the truth
comes  only  from the teacher’s head.  Dr. Kamii says  that  when
individual  children are asked how they arrived at  a  particular
answer,  they  typically react by grabbing for the  eraser,  even
when  their answers are correct.  They must learn to trust  their
own thinking.

Moral  autonomy is another essential property for a complete
adult.   This  should  be  learned early and cannot  be  left  to
chance.   Parents  and teachers need to provide  experiences  and
model  behavior  for  children so that  they  learn  to  identify
situations  with  a  moral/ethical dimension and  to  base  their
responses on what is right.

     Children  also need to learn to  accept  responsibility
for  their own actions.  Parents should not rescue them from  the
consequences.   They are not responsible for the actions  of  the
rest  of  the  world,  but they are  responsible  for  their  own
behavior.   This is a very difficult task because the  media  and
the world act  differently.  Parents have much to fight  against.
However, it is probably the most important thing they can do  for
their  children, and it must be done early.  Adolescence  may  be
too late, it should begin with the very young child.

  We   should  all  be  conscious  of  the  fact  that   the
development  and nurturing of intellectual and moral autonomy  in
ourselves and our children is a lifelong process and we are going
to  be  faced constantly with new dilemmas in our  society.   The
process should be started early and it is never finished.

Piaget  noted that if we examine ” normal adult  individuals
who  are representative of the honest,  human average,  the truly
logical  persons who are masters of their reasoning power are  as
rare  as the truly moral men who exercise their  conscience  with
all their strength.”



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