Psychologists are divided as to whether children learn a code of behaviour from their parents, or whether they are ‘pre-programmed’, acquiring a moral sense as a natural part of their development. Piaget noticed that, until the age of about six, children play without any attention to rules. Between roughly six and ten they acknowledge the existence of rules – indeed, they may be most insistent on them as far as other people are concerned – but they are lax and inconsistent about keeping to the rules themselves. Not until the age of 10 or 12 do they begin to apply and abide by a set of rules conscientiously.
Children’s attitudes towards right and wrong undergo a profound change throughout the childhood years. A young child sees behaviour and morality in terms of absolutes, of right and wrong; he or she will almost always judge an action entirely by its results. The school-age child, however, is capable of understanding that behaviour should be judged in context, and that whether an act is intentional or not, as much as its results, can affect our judgment. Children of school age have a conscience: a set of internal guidelines to follow. They tend to behave well because that is how they have decided to behave, rather than simply through fear of punishment. They can see that punishment has other purposes besides retribution; it can help the perpetrator make amends, or teach him or her to behave better in the future.