Right From Wrong -- At What Age Do Children Develop A Moral Sense, And Understand What It Means To Commit A Crime?

Younger and younger children are being tried as adults in our courts, raising the question: At what age can we expect a youngster to understand moral choices and consequences?

The juvenile justice system was set up under the premise that juveniles are not as mature and cannot be held to the same standards as adults. Generally, those under 12 have not been charged with crimes, because it has been presumed they cannot be expected to know right from wrong, or appreciate the consequences of their actions.

But as crimes committed by juveniles grow more numerous, and more heinous, the push is on to try younger children as adults - subjecting them to longer prison terms, usually in adult prison, where the emphasis is more on punishment, less on rehabilitation.

So now we have two Wenatchee 12-year-olds whom prosecutors want to try as adults on murder charges. In Seattle, a 13-year-old boy has been found guilty of murdering a 14-year-old girl; he's perhaps the youngest person ever convicted of first-degree murder in King County Superior Court. A judge has decided two 15-year-olds will stand trial as adults in the slaying of a 7-year-old girl during a flophouse shooting spree. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old is accused of robbing and threatening to kill an elderly woman - with a judge set to decide whether the child can be charged in the robbery.

There are rules for deciding, legally, who should be considered an adult. But those legal rules are not necessarily based on what experts know about adolescent development.

We decided to ask child-development experts to explain how and when children develop a moral sense, and what the milestones along the age continuum are for acquiring different kinds of self-knowledge, conscience, and judgment.

Interviewed were Dr. James Farrow, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of Washington School of Medicine, director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the UW Medical Center, and director of Nathan Hale High School's Teen Health Center; Dr. Jim Owens, medical director for the Department of Juvenile Rehabilitation; and Dr. William Womack, child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital and consultant at Echo Glen Children's Center (a juvenile rehabilitation institution).

Above all, their message was this: chronological age means nothing. Abuse, emotional deprivation and exposure to violence or drugs retard development - meaning that not all children develop a conscience along the same timetable. It is typical that children charged with crimes are not functioning at their chronological ages.

Children must be held responsible for their behavior, the experts agree. But if they haven't developed a sense of morality, they must be taught. "You can reeducate people - but they have to be in environments that are safe, nurturing and consistent with expectations about responsibility," Womack says.

While hypothetically "you could create a monster 10-year-old that you couldn't rehabilitate, there is reasonable evidence that 10-year-olds can be reeducated on standards of responsibility," Womack says.

The earlier the intervention takes place, the better: "As a generalization, it's true that the younger you are, the better the chances. At 17, or 18, it takes that much longer," says Womack.

"There are some kids who are not of adult legal age, who probably need to have pretty long sentences, because they have done horrendous crimes, a lot of them, and they have no sense of connection with society as we know it today. They may have made those choices because of terrible things that happened them, but they need to be held responsible for those terrible choices they made." Even they, he said, eventually could be rehabilitated, if they are young enough at the time of the crime.

If they have killed someone, "Psychologically that is a turning event for a child; they are harder to rehabilitate." Not, he says, impossible.

But, Womack says, "The things that lead a kid to not care if they kill someone make it hard for them to be part of society. They don't look at human life as being very valuable. They see themselves as . . . unimportant to the system. Therefore the system is unimportant to them."

Developmental stages

We asked the development experts first to consider how a normal child develops. Then they discussed how that might differ in a deprived child. (They emphasize children do vary, and these are generalizations.)

Toddlers, preschoolers:

Basically, normal toddlers and preschoolers learn by being told what to do and by being reminded each time. By age 3 or 4, the parent still is their "external conscience," reinforcing their memory of what they're supposed to do. "They'll start to do something they're not supposed to do, see if you're watching, and if you're not, they'll do it," Womack says. "It's not that they don't know what they shouldn't be doing, but the way they actually stop themselves is because their parents are there."

Younger children:

By about age 6, normal children are developing an internal conscience. "They have a pretty good sense, inside of themselves, of what they're not supposed to do; if they do something wrong, bells go off for them," Womack says.

By about age 9 or 10, they grasp the idea that we have to have rules so people can get along, and we don't have chaos. The more they function in the world outside the family, the more they have a need to learn structure and rules to deal with this outside world.

They go through a phase of being very preoccupied with rules, such as rules of games, and get very upset with each other if someone doesn't follow the rules.

Ages 12-13:

Ages 12 and 13 tend to be a transitional, awkward period: the child is making the transition from childhood to added responsibility and added independence, says Owens. However, if they're involved with a gang where they have to go through initiation, for example, they are often very independent and streetwise at an early age - 11, or even younger.

Middle teen years:

According to the work of a lot of developmental psychologists, says Farrow, for most normal teens there's a shift in early adolescence in the way the child thinks ("cognitive function", as they say), from concrete to abstract. It varies considerably, but usually this takes place between the ages of 12 and 15.

"That's where a person becomes able to understand the consequences of their behavior or actions," Farrow says. "Before that, they can't do this to the same degree. They're not as future oriented. They don't see cause and effect relationships very well."

What happens to allow, typically, for such maturity at that age? Nobody knows for sure, Farrow says, but most developmental theorists, following Jean Piaget's theory, believe that there are physical changes in the brain that allow for that capacity to think more abstractly and be future oriented.

While these are all generalizations, and kids have to be assessed on a case by case basis, he says, "generally a child under 14 is going to be clearly less mature in terms of brain functioning, than a kid over 14. With kids under 14, there's good reason to believe they are cognitively immature enough that they are not thinking like an adult.

"Kids over 14, you might be able to make the case, they should be thinking like an adult."

And, he adds, "It gets to be a very gray area when you're 15, 16, 17, because there are so many things that could impede normal cognitive development and brain function, and everybody is a little different."

Farrow says that the law allows people at age 14 to consent to a lot of their own medical treatment, such as for mental health, substance abuse, STDs, pregnancy detection and abortion. This consent age is based on the "mature minor doctrine," which in turn is based on developmental theory that says normal adolescents are mature enough in their thinking at that age to be able to consent to their own medical care without parental permission.

Mid- to late teens:

At 14 or 15, says Womack, the normal child begins to look at the complexity of rightness and wrongness. They understand few things are pure, and that sometimes we follow the rules because it's the right thing, and sometimes you don't follow a rule because it isn't the right thing to do.

"Say a younger child asks why he can't touch the stove; a parent may say, `because I said so,' or `because it will hurt.' But the 14-year-old will give you all kinds of contingencies where the rule could be broken - `what if I wear gloves?' - because they have the capacity intellectually to think about the complexity of morality," Womack says.

That capacity may take place in early adolescence - as early as 11 or 12 with some children - and commonly by 14 to 17.

Morality is important to the adolescent, Womack notes. "They recognize hypocrisy. A 15-year-old understands that people lie. They are beginning to try to put together the reasons why things happen, and to question things: why are people good, what is good and evil, how people make choices. That questioning prepares the adolescent for adult life, and independence. Because, to make decisions, we have to be thoughtful about why things should be the way they are."

During ages 14-16, says Owens, "It's a real vacillation, between depending on the family, and independence."

Children of this age are primarily peer oriented - so the most important source of right and wrong, standards and values, are not parents, but peers or maybe some adult heroes or heroines - whether good or bad role models.

Older adolescents:

What really distinguishes the older adolescent, says Owens, is the ability to plan, and ability to see themselves realistically.

"In contrast, the typical 12-year-old thinks about today - what am I going to do today, are things going to be fun or awful today?"

The deprived child

The timetables that normal children follow are disrupted when a child has been abused, exposed to violence, emotionally deprived, involved in drug and alcohol, bounced around in foster homes.

Social retardation is common, he says Owens: "It means inability to form meaningful relationships, inability to plan, a sense of hopelessness and despair.

"We see 16-year-olds who hug teddy bears, and who cry, and act like 12-year-olds, or 8-year-olds, and who are not mentally retarded," says Owens.

Womack says children who haven't had consistent nurturing from adults don't get the kind of repetitive, but loving, `you shouldn'ts' that cause moral values to stick.

The person instilling the values must be seen as fair, loving and trustworthy, because otherwise, "the message is regarded as unbelievable or untrustworthy. If you really dislike someone you're not going to listen, or believe that what they're saying is actually helpful."

To get a sense of morality, the child has to know, deep inside, that the parent is giving advice and rules because it's for his own good.

Scare tactics

"You can scare kids into not doing what they shouldn't," Womack says, "but they will do it when you're away to get back at you."

Drug abuse delays development, Farrow says, because, "If kids are high all the time . . . they're not very future oriented; they tend to stay concrete, and not see the consequences of their actions."

Dropping out of school and hanging out with "deadheads going nowhere," he says, means children don't get any intellectual challenge. That means that, although their brains are ready to develop the capacity for critical thinking, they don't get trained to do so.

Behaving right, knowing right

Womack makes the point that, though the law focuses on knowing right from wrong, there's a difference between knowing right, and being able to behave right.

"A 13-year-old who has not had constant parenting, has had a lot of difficulty with early attachment issues, doesn't trust people, has a hard time making friendships, usually has a hard time following rules.

"He doesn't even think about rules being moral, just as being restrictive to prevent them from enjoying life."

While the legal system concentrates on "do they know right from wrong," he says, "that's not what determines what they do . . . or how capable they are of being helped so they won't do it again."

Farrow adds that children have "a very poor concept of death, even if they see a lot of it. Death is a very abstract concept, and it doesn't mean very much of anything, even if they can personalize it - a parent or a grandparent has died, or they live in a violent environment with a lot of people getting hurt and killed. A lot of kids, because of all the things they see, or from television, are desensitized to the true meaning of it. The finality of it."

Also, younger adolescents typically have "that magical thinking that `nothing will happen to me, I can get away with that.' "

That is why powerful penalities for crime are fairly meaningless as a deterrent to kids younger than 14, he says. "You could tell them, you'll go to prison for the rest of your life, it doesn't compute. They feel invulnerable."

Streetwise vs. mature

In a court hearing to judge whether a child is functioning as an adult, and therefore should be tried as one, there's often evidence presented that the child defendant is very streetwise: that he has been living independently, earning a living (usually illegally), and often sexually involved.

But while it may seem like they're living as adults, many "end up with severe mental disorders, depression being the major one, (and) end up dying in their teens," says Owens. "Or having severe medical and mental problems because of the life they've led on the streets.

"Streetwise means you know how to survive on the streets, to get the things you need to live," Owens says, but it's a posture that is a survival mechanism.

Hence the teen criminal crying and hugging a teddy bear.

To these children, "the world has been a bad place, a hurting place, they're afraid, and they cover the fear with a facade of toughness, proving themselves by doing dangerous things. But inside the basic emotion is fear and lack of any kind of self-esteem. . . .

"Inside is a small child," Owens says. "I suppose that sounds like I'm a bleeding heart, trying to get some kind of support for the kids, and they really need a lot of support. Some of the kids, it never registers with them, no matter what. They're empty-bucket kids, who go through life saying `feed me.' They end up in institutions, their whole lives in institutions, if they've been damaged badly enough."

What about the kids from deprived homes who do develop normally, and rise above their circumstances?

Womack says it's partly a matter of individual temperament; some kids are able to cope better than others. That's more than a matter of intelligence, though it generally is easier for more intelligent children to cope with adversity.

But, he and Farrow say, usually you can pinpoint someone in their lives who has been a caring, stimulating role model for them: good foster parents, a pastor or youth leader, often a teacher.

Says Farrow: "So they're able to rise above the mediocrity around them."


What can parents do to make sure their children grow up with moral values and a conscience?

The following suggestions embody basic common sense, say the experts.

1. Be there: Always be available to your kids and give as much support to them as you can, says Dr. William Womack, child psychiatrist and consultant. If your kids know you are concerned and will protect them, "It instills trust. People who are the most moral, most willing to do the right thing, are the people who have had the right thing done to them. They have trusted. If they haven't trusted, they're not likely to do the right thing."

2. Live the right values: "It's not what parents say to their children, it's how they live," says Dr. Jim Owens, medical director for the Department of Juvenile Rehabilitation. Treat others - and treat your kids - the way you want your kids to treat other people: fairly, honestly, with justice. "If parents are kind, treat each other and other people with respect, not violence, if they can talk out problems - those are things that are embedded permanently in kids' minds. . . . If they're mean-spirited and violent, quick to judge, then they learn that.

"They learn from a very early age whether the world is a safe place - do you have to have your guard up, or will people accept you and be kind to you? They learn that from the first year of life."

Not to worry if you have the occasional loud argument, he says: "A lot of parents have vocal arguments, but if they basically respect each other that's something the child senses and feels secure about."

3. Instill self-esteem: The more you can help your child feel as if he is worthwhile, the more he will be willing to do good to others, and help others feel as though they are worthwhile, Womack says. The child whose parents don't make him feel worthwhile always feels deprived and angry, "and when they meet other people they feel angry that the other is getting something they don't have. They're always trying to get more, they take from people; they don't have the ability to recognize that other people have needs, too.