Family Forum: What Is Really Motivating Us?

By Michael Farnworth


It seems to me that thoughtful Mormon parents should be concerned about moral agency as described in Doctrine & Covenants 101:78—


That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.


The moral motivation and agency behind behavior is possibly more important than the behavior itself.

Just as we go through physical, mental, emotional, and social developmental stages, so do we develop morally. Morality is woven into all aspects of our life at home, work, church, and any other place where humans interact.

Probably the most well known moral theorist is Lawrence Kohlberg, who articulated three levels (each with two stages of motivation) of what we understand now is a distinctly masculine approach to moral reasoning.

The first level of moral reasoning, which Kohlberg called preconventional, covers approximately ages three to seven. At this level, children are cognitively limited, so their moral reasoning is based mostly on avoiding punishment and gaining rewards.

The next level of moral development—the conventional level—can arise during approximately ages eight to thirteen. At this level, children’s developing intellectual capacities enable them to engage in socially approved behavior motivated by wanting to be liked and accepted and by wanting to be obedient to rules and regulations.

The final level in Kohlberg’s theory—labeled post-conventional—can occur only in tandem with the higher levels of adult cognition. People at this level base their moral reasoning on their sense of what is truly just and on the commitments they have made, rather than trying to avoid punishment or be socially accepted.

A model of Kohlberg’s moral development theory would look something like the table below.

Now read through the following stage-based reasons for keeping the Ten Commandments, to see which of the six stages resonates most with you.

Stage 1: I keep the commandments because I don’t want to go to hell.

Stage 2: I keep the commandments because I want all that the Father has promised.

Stage 3: I keep the commandments because I don’t want God to get mad at me.

Stage 4: I keep the commandment because they are the commandments.

Stage 5: I keep the commandments because I made a commitment to do so.

Stage 6: I keep the commandments because they reflect the nature of reality and myself.


Some Examples of Moral Reasoning


Let’s say a four–year-old child needs to learn to stay out of the street. How would a parent teach the child according to each of the six stages of motivation in Kohlberg’s theory?

For the first stage of motivation, a simple threat would work: “You are going to get your butt spanked if you go out in the street.” This ultimatum is simple, direct, and falls easily from the tongue.

For the second stage, another simple statement could work: “If you stay out of the street, you’ll get a cookie.”

For the third stage of motivation, the request gets a little more complicated: “If you stay out of the street, Mommy and Daddy will love you and not get mad at you.” For this moral motivation to work, the child would have to be able to connect fulfilling the parents’ request with retaining their love and affection. Though processing this request is a little more complicated than processing the first two, the threat of withdrawing love from a child can be a potent one for assuring obedience (though I don’t recommend it). The child, however, has to be old enough to understand the consequences.

The fourth stage of motivation would require more preparation and work. The parents might need to set up a family home evening, perhaps inviting a uniformed officer over to explain why children shouldn’t play in the street. Afterwards, Mommy and Daddy would agree to stay out of the street unless safely crossing it. Big Brother and Sister would also agree to the rule; and finally the four-year-old would make the same commitment. Everyone would agree to abide by the family rule to stay out of the street. This situation is certainly much more complicated and requires considerable work and preparation.

The fifth stage of motivation would require a strong relationship of trust between parent and child, as well as love and cognitive ability. In truth, the fifth and sixth stages of moral motivation would be cognitively beyond the limits of a four-year-old.

So why do adults in the post-conventional stage of moral reasoning decide to stay out of the street? If they are in stage 5, they stay out because they are aware of, and invested in, the traffic system. They understand that being a user of the streets means that they have agreed to the rules that help the system function well.

Adults in stage 6 understand the system, and also value the people participating in it. They do not want to expose anyone to harm, so they stay out of the street.


As another illustration, let’s use the situation of a parent reminding a sixteen-year-old to be home by curfew.


Stage 1: “If you are not home by eleven tonight, you’re going to be grounded for a week.”

Stage 2: “If you make it home by curfew tonight, you can use the car all next week.”

Stage 3: “If you’re smart, you’ll be home when you are supposed to be. Any questions?”

Stage 4: “Remember our family rule about getting home on time. Don’t forget.”

Stage 5: “Let us know if anything comes up tonight so we don’t have to worry about you. Have a good time.”

Stage 6: “See you when you get home.”


Note how much the statements from stages 5 and 6 rely on mature moral reasoning on the teen’s part. Whereas the statements in the first four stages make appeals to outside forces and consequences, the last two make an appeal to the teen’s inner sense of self. It takes a lot of work to help a person get to this level of moral reasoning, which is why so many of us still operate at stages 1–4.


Low-Level Moral Thinking


If we believe that simple obedience is the ultimate goal of spiritual life, we are likely stuck in the lower levels of moral reasoning.

For example, imagine that a uniformed highway patrolman has been hired to sit full-time in the back seat of your car. He is always there monitoring your speed, driving etiquette, and traffic behavior. Doubtless, you would always be a good driver and never speed for fear of an immediate $150-dollar ticket. In this scenario, your good behavior—your obedience—does not originate from within, but from the presence of the highway patrolman. On the surface, you might be the poster child for good driving, but you could not claim any credit for it. Virtue, goodness, and truth must spring from within, or they will be superficial and false.

Some of us live our lives with a metaphorical highway patrolman in our back seat. We closely monitor our own behavior because we are afraid of getting in trouble or losing the rewards we covet. We keep a hawk’s eye out for anyone else breaking rules, issuing tickets at the slightest infraction of the law. Being so rule-absorbed, we overlook the attributes of mercy and love that compose the higher moral law.

If obedience were the most important part of the plan of salvation, then Satan’s plan would have sufficed. In order to become truly Christ-like, we need to possess mature moral reasoning capabilities. The scriptures teach us that “it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39). The only way we or our children can discern good from evil is to become agents unto ourselves (Moses 6:56) and to taste the forbidden fruit.


A Parent’s Job


Here’s an experiment. Think back on the last few times you have invited one of your children to engage in moral reasoning. Which level did you invite him or her into? As we have seen, the phrasing we use when we interact with our children can keep them stuck in the lower levels of moral reasoning. We certainly don’t want to send our eighteen-year-old child off to college with the moral reasoning skills and motivations of a seven-year-old! But that’s often exactly what we do. Perhaps that’s why our LDS colleges feel the need to provide such a structured in loco parentis environment.

Most children automatically grow up physically, intellectually, and socially. The children who do struggle with delays in these areas manifest themselves in time, and we do our best to help them along. But delays in moral development may pass entirely unnoticed. A morally undeveloped person may look like an adult and interact like an adult but have the motivations of a preschooler.

For example, a person kept at low-levels of moral reasoning may believe that a particular action is acceptable if nobody finds out about it. Anything goes if the reward is valuable enough and the threat of punishment scarce enough. People who commit white-collar crime, for example, don’t rob banks because the risk of being caught is too great. But they do embezzle or steal money through elaborate financial schemes and computer strategies because they know how to cover their tracks. The same moral reasoning probably motivates those who act contrary to their public character when they are out of town and functionally anonymous. The lowered risk of getting caught weighs far more heavily, in their minds, than decent, fair, moral behavior.

I am convinced that developing high levels of moral reasoning is essential to attaining a mature spiritual life. Fear of getting caught, fear of not receiving a reward, fear of not being acceptable to others, and fear of not measuring up are powerful but inferior motivations. Duty to others, self, and God may rise a little higher, but when that duty is motivated by a desire to look better than others or to receive credit and approval for a job well done, it becomes tainted with lower-level incentives.

Parents often unknowingly inhibit their children’s moral development by forcing their obedience. The problem is that saying no to a parent (which usually begins during the “terrible twos”) is an affirmation of a child’s individuation and autonomy and is a necessary part of maturation. Don’t fight it—direct it. If children are not free to disobey, then they are not free to obey.

Obedience that is forced through physical or psychological tactics lacks integrity and virtue. Such an approach teaches our children to obey outside authority rather than their own inner authority. This forced obedience may be functional while dealing with small children, but it will not nurture virtue. I define virtue as the ability to stand alone in the desires of the heart. Certainly, we parents want our children to be able to stand independent in the face of peer pressure. But if we are forcing their obedience, our children may find that the only avenue providing them with some sense of personal integrity is rebellion. Many well-meaning but forceful parents risk pushing their children into mutiny when they fail to respect this aspect of their adolescents’ need to develop personal moral virtue. To the extent that parents dominate and control their teenagers, peers will have an equal or greater influence as they replace parents in exerting that same pressure. In other words, if you want children to be strong enough to stand up to peer pressure, they need to be strong enough to stand up to you!

Love seems to be the only motivation that can stand above the lower motivations Kohlberg describes, but even love is not safe from motivational flaws. I don’t know who said it, but I believe it is true: Love will not force. Parents who think they are motivated by love when they force their children to be obedient are simply stuck in their own lower levels of moral reasoning.

As a young parent, I desired above all else to have obedient children so that people would perceive me as a successful father. In other words, I was operating at an 8- to 13-year-old’s level, though I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I wasn’t a bad parent, just a conventional one. However, the psychological coercion I used to obtain obedience from my children constantly exposed them to the lowest levels of moral valuing. I was a parenting Peter Pan, always trying to avoid growing up and assuming moral responsibility for my behavior. I was more comfortable being told how to behave by my culture. Unfortunately, my children paid the price for my stunted moral growth.

It is important that parents provide age-appropriate moral motivation to their children, accompanied by explanations and teachings that can move them to higher levels of moral reasoning. Like Adam and Eve, all of us need to metaphorically leave the garden so that, through repentance and the redemption of Christ, we may return. Parents who attempt to short-circuit that process for themselves or their children by trying to create mortal perfection based on outward obedience are missing the mark. As our children age, we need to be willing to answer their “why” questions. Our teaching style should be able to evolve from direct instruction when they are young to peer-to-peer exchange when they hit the teenage years. This evolution will keep our influence in our children’s lives stronger than if we pull rank and pontificate as if we have the final answer. Adolescents will shut us out of their lives if we become too authoritative and overbearing.

We should still be serious about enforcing boundaries, standards, and values, but we should also be willing to engage our children in verbal give-and-take as we teach them to explore their own higher moral reasoning. We need to be real, vulnerable, and accepting of them. We need to lose confrontations periodically to encourage our children’s formation of values and virtue, even if those values differ from our own. Indeed, we’ll sometimes find that our own motivations are rooted in a lower stage and that our children are right to question us. We’ll need to do some introspection of our own, rising to higher levels of moral reasoning along with our children. The use of guilt, shame, coercion, and manipulation to force our children to behave, no matter what our intentions, is spiritually abusive and wrong-headed. How can we teach our children to respond to the inner voice of their virtuous spirit if we are always forcing them to respond to external pressure?

Carol Lynn Pearson encapsulates this message beautifully in her poem: “Don’t Push.”


The minute the doctor said “push”

I did, and I’ve got to stop now

Because you’re eighteen


Breathe deeply

Think of something else

Don’t push

Don’t push.


In the next column we will explore moral reasoning using a “feminine” lens.