CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

As used here, character development refers to the development of conscience, moral concepts, religious values, and social attitudes in the child. Research on these interrelated subjects has been somewhat scattered and sporadic since many psychologists have felt that this entire area does not lend itself to scientific investigation. Nevertheless there have been some revealing studies, and there is little doubt that the growth of standards and “inner controls” is “one of the most important problems facing students of personality development today.” (Sears, 1960).No child is bom with a character or conscience. Moral concepts and moral behavior must be learned, and this is a gradual affair extending from the earliest years through adolescence. The learning process, however, is more than an intellectual matter, for in addition to learning the approved ways of behaving, the child must shift from an acceptance of specific rules to a general conception of right and wrong, and from external conformity to internal control. In so doing, he must develop his own standards and apply them voluntarily,thoughtfully, and self-critically. Put in another way, he must develop a conscience of his own, an inward voice which not only approves right behavior but makes him feel guilty when he turns in a wrong direction: “Guilt . . . constitutes a most efficient watchdog within each individual, serving to keep his behavior compatible with the moral values of the society in which he lives.” (Ausubel, 1955).Moral behavior. During the first few years of life the emphasis is on conduct rather than concept. The child develops social behavior in two principal ways. One is by direct training and teaching: parents and others show him what to do and what not to do in specific situations, reinforcing their efforts with discipline when he goes wrong and approval when he conforms. Studies however, show, that punishment and reproof are generally less effective than praise and reward (Eysenck, 1960). The other way is through identification with parents or other persons the child admires. In this process he adopts desirable (and sometimes undesirable) patterns of behavior through voluntary emulation and unconscious imitation rather than through pressure or teaching.Moral concepts. As the child grows older and more mature, he gradually learns to generalize from specific behavior, and forms abstract principles of right and wrong. A child of six or seven may say, “It’s bad to steal a ball,” but by eight or nine he will probably use the general concept, “Stealing is wrong,” and within another three or four years will relate this concept to social justice.The acquisition of mature concepts and values, however, is no simple cut- and-dried affair. Some children do not have the intelligence or attention span to understand moral reasoning, and in many instance they are confused by parental inconsistency, conflicts between moral codes and pressures both inside and outside the home, or by teaching that emphasizes what is wrong without showing or explaining what is right. Such confusions not only hamper the learning process but make it difficult for the child to make his own moral decisions. He may then take the simpler path of following his own social group, for good or ill, especially since this helps him win acceptance and approval.Some specific values. Considerable light has been thrown on the development of character through studies of special moral concepts. Harrower (1934) found that ideas about cheating differed markedly on different socioeconomic and educational levels. School children from higher levels most frequently said, “It doesn’t do any good,” or “One can’t learn that way,” while those from poorer neighborhoods made such comments as, “Cheating is forbidden,” “It’s naughty,” or “It’s unfair.” She also found a difference in ideas of punishment. When they were told a story in which one child took another child’s toy, six to eight year olds from poor homes usually said the culprit should be “smacked,” while children from more privileged homes said he should replace the toy (restitution). However, the majority of eight to eleven year olds in both groups advocated restitution rather than retaliation, indicating that the moral code becomes more standardized as children grow older and more thoughtful.A study of honesty and deceit made by Hartshorne and May in 1928 is still cited as a landmark in the study of character development. These investigators had groups of children take a number of tests which were so devised that it was possible to detect whether they cheated. They found that (1) older children were slightly more deceptive than younger children, (2) there was no significant difference between boys and girls, (3) brighter children were on the whole more honest than duller children, (4) maladjusted children tended to be more deceptive than well-adjusted children, (5) children who had received poor marks in general deportment tended to cheat more than others, (6) there was a progressive increase in cheating from the top of the socioeconomic scale downward, (7) suggestible children deceived more than nonsug- gestible children, (8) children whose teachers emphasized cooperation and good will cheated less than children whose teachers stressed rigid routines, and surprisingly, (9) children who were members of organizations that stressed the virtue of honesty cheated just about as much as others. Finally, the study revealed that cheating is a specific rather than a general and uniform trait —that is, it was not possible to make sharp divisions between honest and dishonest children because children who lie or cheat in one situation might be perfectly honorable in another. This points up the importance of looking inward to discover the child’s motives as well as outward to assess the pressures acting on him in a particular situation.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/character-development/ (accessed December 11, 2019).
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