5/6 How your Childhood impacts the Development of the Conscience

In our discussion on the Conscience as the 4th member of our personality, we have looked at where we get our Conscience and can we really trust it as a Guide in this path to Total Wholeness. 

To continue this discussion and to further answer these questions, we need to go back and see how our Childhood has shaped the Conscience.


There have been many, many studies and observations made as children grew from one stage to another in their understanding of right and wrong.  Various writers have come up with the concept that a child has certain ages when the stages of moral conscepts emerge.  It is very important that parents understand these stages and help guide and discipline a child correctly so as not to break their will and damage their spirit.

However, almost all writers and researchers believe that a child must be guided and not left to the ‘crowd’ to set their values.

As we have already talked about in other posts, our Conscience is greatly influenced by our culture and family environment; far more the more important influence.


One of the most recognised researchers in this area is Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg or Harvard University.  His approach to the development of the Conscience.

1.  Stage 1 involved a ‘pre-moral’ concept of right and wrong. 

The infant has no moral response to the rights of others not any genuine respect for the authority of parents or caregivers.   The infant lives in a self-centred where the only importance is that their needs met.

2.  The child then goes through a stage of being ‘hedonistic’.

This means any concept of right and wrong is based on rewards and punishment – gaining rewards or meeting punishment.  The child learns limits of behaviour and freedom based on the limits the caregiver placed on the events.  Kohlberg believes this applies to children 7 years and younger, where rewards and punishments guide their behaviour.

3.  The child then enters a stage where behaviours is set by examples of those around them with the basic aim of the approval of others.

The child becomes compliant to the standards of that society so as to benefit from total social consent ….. or not to accept the rules.  Moral decisions become more complex as other’s views have to be considered to be accepted.  His peers, social contacts and others in authority influence his morality.

Around 13 years of age, the teen begins to move from rewards and punishments and the examples of others to wanting to have a good image to present to others about them.  They now want to fit into conventional norms of right and wrong.

4. The next stage involves a person being able to develop  a sense of morality to avoid self-condemnation.

She now shifts from accepting the imposed rules on right and wrong to internalizing the rules as her own.  Individual principles and morals are decided in the process of establishing their own moral code.

Somewhere around 13 years of age, the child begins to shift from other’s views to belong able to set their own moral guidelines.  This marks the stage of passing from concrete thinking into more abstract reasoning and processing.


Many other researchers reject such a cognitive (mental) explanation of Conscience.  They argue that moral reasoning is not necessarily highly correlated with or moral behaviour.

The major problem with Kohlberg’s views is seen in cultures that do not develop into the stage 4 of his research, such as the Germany Nazi’s view of the Jewish part of their community, or certain cannibal tribes where little concerns were given to other tribes.  Cults and cultures that practice polygamy or female circumcision keep their own rules despite the rights and wrong so the greater community.  Multitudes of examples can be seen in a country where the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ seen little equality.


We can still take much of the research findings about children when applying Biblical principles.  Certainly the observations of Dr. Kohlberg about the first stages of Conscience development still apply.

The infant is born with a self-centred approach to their world; needs come before respect and notice of other’s rights.  Smacking or punishment at this stage is confusing and neglect rather than correction.

It is only as the infant moves into two and three years of age that actions and punishment begins to come together.   Caregivers must be aware if their discipline so as not to break the spirit and will but to guide the child into the correct and acceptable rule of behaviour.

From four years onwards to about seven, rewards and punishments are the best methods to train a child – “if I do this, I will be pleasing to Dad.”  “If I do this, I will get punished by Dad.”  It is only when the child’s brain has not reached a stage of abstract thinking that they can bring a sense of their own Conscience into line with others.

So yes, the environment and society a child grows in does greatly mould their sense of right and wrong.  However, the basic for a Conscience has been set by God as He has put a Conscience into every human born…..often it takes time and training to bring out the best in this Conscience He has given us.


In trying to understand and match the Biblical principles with those of Child Development research, we can reach several conclusions.

a.  Every human has been given a Conscience as a tool from their Creator.

b.  During the training in infancy and childhood, that Conscience can be given Godly guidance, warped, twisted or even crushed.  Expecting the two year old to be at the standard of a 13 year old can only scar and abuse the child.

c. Around the age of 13, when thinking has progressed from the concrete to the abstract, the child can begin to think for themselves.  At that point, the teen can begin to chose to fulfil the training given or to go another way.  Part of that ‘programing’ by the Creator will be to see His hand in vastness of creation and chose a path to find His Truth.

d.  Than as the person grows in wisdom and temptations, the Conscience can be followed, ignored, seared and even cease to work.

It becomes the caregivers place then, to seek Godly wisdom to raise any child today with all the temptations and distractions we find around us.  Doing some research into Child Development principles can help give some guidance so that the discipline matches the stages of the child.

“Raise a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from that,” Proverbs 22:6.  Godly approaches to teaching a child the moral values needed in life still apply today.

Hopefully this has just added some interest to find the Godly principles in the Child Development books, especially as a parent or caregiver of children.  Perhaps this would be a great topic for another blog ?????  Maybe ‘’ ????

Join us for the next post when we how the Conscience actually works, whether we can trust it as a Guide in Life’s journey. 

Susanne Fengler, Blog Author


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