How to Help Your Children Develop a Sense of Justice

Children's concept of right and wrong changes and develops as they grow up. And their parents' guidance is fundamental in the process. Read more about this topic in the following article.
How to Help Your Children Develop a Sense of Justice

Last update: 05 February, 2021

All parents have heard their children say the phrase “this isn’t fair!” countless times. It may be because a sibling was granted a privilege that they were not, they received punishment or consequence due to misbehavior, or simply because we took them out of the bathtub sooner than they desired. However, to understand their claims, we must first understand how children develop a sense of justice.

The family plays an essential role in children’s moral education and values. It’s been proven that this occurs through socialization; interaction with other human beings. This is how the little ones understand social norms and develop a notion of what is fair and unfair. So how can we make it easier for them?

The sense of justice in children

Our children’s concept of justice will be different depending on their age and stage of development. Important authors, such as Piaget and Kohlberg, made interesting contributions to the understanding of this process.

How to Help Your Children Develop a Sense of Justice

First stage

Children have no real conception of morality until they’re four years old. For them, everything they like or want is fair, while everything they dislike or don’t want is unfair.

For this reason, it’s common for children to affirm that it’s not fair to force them to leave the park when they’re having such a good time, or that it’s unfair to have to take off the pirate costume to put on the school uniform.

They don’t yet understand social conventions nor can they infer the need for what we ask them to do. Children associate with injustice the inability to be themselves – to not satisfy their immediate desires in order to comply with others’ orders.

Second stage (moral realism)

Later on, between the ages of five and eight, kids enter the stage of moral realism. At this point, they understand that standards are something externally imposed by authority figures such as parents, teachers, or God.

They assume that the rules are absolute and failure to follow them will always be cause for punishment, regardless of their intention of breaking them. This is why we sometimes see children asking for a sibling to be punished for spilling the juice on their shirt, even if it was by accident.

Third stage (moral relativism)

Finally, at the age of nine, children understand that rules are agreements between people and that it’s a voluntary act to adhere to them to guarantee a common good. Likewise, they begin to take into account the intentions of other people as well as the results of their actions. Moreover, they understand that the rules can be flexible and up for discussion.

Keys to helping children develop a sense of justice

All minors will go through this process during their development, although each child’s personal progress may vary. Given the importance of socialization in moral development, actions that take place at home will either help or hinder children’s ability to develop a sense of justice. So, how can we help them?

How to Help Your Children Develop a Sense of Justice

  • Even though they’re small and we feel that they can’t fully understand our reasoning, let’s always try to explain to them the reason for the rules we impose. They don’t have to go to sleep just “because mom or dad says so”, but because they need to rest to go to school the next day.
  • We should take turns (setting up the table, for example) and assign equal responsibilities to all members of the household. Thus, the little ones will naturally understand that following the rules and collaborating benefits us all, and it’s something we do for the common good.
  • Let them question the rules to develop critical thinking and express their opinion. It’s good to listen to their arguments so that we can explain and negotiate with them instead of imposing.

Let’s remember that, as parents, our goal isn’t to make our children obey, but to internalize values and follow them out of conviction. To do this, the best tool we have is our example and healthy family relationships in which respect and trust prevail.

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  • Hersh, R. H., Reimer, J., & Paolitto, D. P. (1984). El crecimiento moral: de Piaget a Kohlberg (Vol. 34). Narcea Ediciones.
  • Vásquez, A. E. D., & Ricapa, E. (2010). Relación entre los tipos de familia y el nivel de juicio moral en un grupo de estudiantes universitarios. Revista de investigación en psicología13(2), 153-174.