The Moral Formation of Children Ages 0-12

Issue IV May 2000

This paper extracts principles of moral formation from the catechetical work of Sofia Cavalletti and the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori. Together the work of these women yields the following elements of moral formation: Preparation of the heart-children must be in relationship with God and others to act with love. This preparation begins with life, long before the formation of conscience begins. Preparation of the body-the body can carry out the choice of the heart and mind only if self-discipline is present. A strong connection between will and action is fostered by the Montessori Method’s use of choice, freedom, and movement. Preparation of the mind-at the age of six the facility for judgment, the conscience, begins to be formed. Help is offered with moral prophecies, parables, and maxims from the Scriptures.

(Presented at  Pace Universtity conference on the Ethics of Parenting 1999, American Montessori Society Conference 2005, Children’s Spirituality Conference 2016).

by Catherine Maresca

Catherine Maresca is the founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology. She received an MA in Religious Studies from Howard University Divinity School, and is the author of DoubleClose, the Young Child’s Knowledge of God.


I’d like to begin with an account of an act of moral courage. My son, Kevin, at age 18, went to a basketball tournament at his old high school with a friend, Tom. During the award ceremonies Tom called out a derogatory comment to one of his friends. Kevin, thought the comment was directed at a player from another team. A minute later a man that Kevin did not know charged up to Tom, pushed him against the wall with his forearm across Tom’s neck, and began to yell at him. Kevin laid his hand on the man’s shoulder, pulled him away from Tom, and stepped between them. The man continued to yell for another minute, then stomped away saying, “I’ll see you in my office.” Kevin asked, “Who was that?” and was surprised to learn that the man was on the faculty of the high school. While his friends who attended the school were unable to confront his misuse of power Kevin was freer to identify it and respond with action.

Kevin’s response was the fruit of three kinds of preparation: preparation of the heart, preparation of the body, and preparation of the mind. Kohlberg’s seminal work on moral development has focused primarily on children’s cognitive skills. Yet scholars now recognize that this is not the only component of a moral response. We will use the understanding of children portrayed by the work of Maria Montessori and of Sofia Cavalletti to explore these three areas of moral formation.

Maria Montessori was an Italian medical doctor and educator whose method of education is based almost exclusively on observation of young children. She believed that children revealed their educational needs and potential through their responses to and interteraction with the environment around them, not only through their words, but, more significantly, their actions and behavior. From her we have a developmental model of children through age 24 that is divided into four equal stages, or planes of development. This paper deals with children in the first two planes of development. Moral formation must take into account the needs and abilities of these two stages.

From a moral development perspective the most important difference between the two planes is that children do not begin to judge right from wrong (conscience) until the second plane of development. This does not mean moral formation cannot begin until age six. Rather the focus is on the preparation of the heart and body instead of on the conscience during the first six years. Montessori’s methodology can be applied to every aspect of moral formation. In addition her work on self-discipline guides our approach to preparation of the body.

Sofia Cavalletti is also an Italian. Her work began a year after Montessori’s death and focused on religious formation. Her method of observing and learning from the children was the same as Montessori’s. From that observation has grown a Christian formation approach called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which I have used with children since 1981. Cavalletti observed that the planes of development are also operative in the spiritual life of the child. It is from her work that we draw guidelines for the preparation of the heart and mind.


Sofia Cavalletti wrote, “To teach morality the [adult] must be convinced that at its root is love, and then proceed from that principle. Morality emerges from love” (Cavalletti, 1964, p. 110). Montessori writes eloquently of the love of the young child,

“Who will love us as this child loves us now? Who will call us when he goes to bed, saying affectionately: “Stay with me!” …What drives a child to go in search of his parents as soon as he gets up of it is not love? When a child bounces from his bed early, at the break of day, he goes to find his still sleeping parents as if to say: “Learn to live holily! It is already light! I is morning!” Bus a child goes to his parents not to teach them but only to see again those whom he loves” (Montessori, Secret of Childhood, p. 128).

The preparation of this loving heart begins with the experience of God’s love, and the characteristics of empathy and communion present in young children. Before age six the child is unencumbered with moral decisions. The foundation is laid for a moral life in the relationships of love in the child’s life, including the mysterious but rich relationship with God. “Early childhood is the time for the peaceful presence of God in our life…” Cavalletti said, “Therefore, our task with young children is above all to let the child know that someone loves him or her with an everlasting love.” (Cavalletti, “God in Search of the Child”, p. 14).

In my Christian tradition, using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, this announcement is made primarily through the image of the Good Shepherd. The children are given a small two dimensional model of a shepherd and ten sheep with a sheep fold. With these materials they are able to reflect on the words of the Scripture about the care of the Good Shepherd for his sheep, and internalize their message. The parable of the Good Shepherd seems to affirm and articulate their relationship with God, a relationship that God initiates at the beginning of the child’s life.

That God reaches for relationship with the child is only part of the connection, however. Buber writes of the new human being, “In the beginning is relation as the category of being, as readiness, as a form that reaches out to be filled…The development of the child’s soul is connected indissolubly with his craving for the You” (Buber, p. 77-79). The child is born reaching for the Other, and finds in God a true match. Cavalletti writes, “In the contact with God the child finds the nourishment his being requires, nourishment the child needs in order to grow in harmony. God–who is love–and the child, who asks for love more than his mother’s milk, thus meet one another in a particular correspondence of nature” (Cavalletti, 1983, p. 45).

Howard Thurman, in his book Jesus and the Disinherited, states, “The socially disadvantaged man is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions…’Who am I? What am I?’…The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power” (p. 49-50). Regardless of one’s human circumstances, the relationship with God is formative of the person, and empowers him or her to take moral action.

Moral formation is also rooted in relationship with other people, particularly through the gift of empathy, or compassion. A US News and World Report article on moral development stated, “Empathy develops naturally in the first years of life…[it] is the bedrock of human morality… Almost every form of moral behavior is inconceivable without it” (p. 54). Opal Whitely was a five-year-old girl who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century as the foster child of a poor logging family. Her remarkable ability to write gives us a rare glimpse into the nature of the child under six. Here she describes an encounter with a man who crossed her path one day.

 “Today I saw a tramper coming on the tracks. This tramper walked steps on the ties in a slow tired way. When he was come more near I did have thinks he might have hungry feels. Most trampers do. I took the lid off my lunch pail. There was just a half piece of bread and butter left…I looked at the tramper. Then I did have little feels of the big hungry feels he might be having. I ran a quick run to catch up with him. He was glad for it. He ate it in two bites” (Whitely, p.29).

This young child’s decision to share her bread was not the rational decision of a well-formed conscience. She allowed her “little feels” of his great hunger to guide her. This is compassion. Compassion is at the root of the action of the Good Samaritan in the parable of Jesus. It is the root of Atticus Finch’s advice to his daughter Scout to “Climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it for awhile.” It is the insight behind Simone Weil’s statement, “The essential question of the moral life is ‘What are you going through?’” (Weil, p.115). Compassion helps prepare the heart for moral action.

Additionally, the heart is opened to an innate sense of union with all people and all things that is very strong in the child after age six. Using images from our faith tradition, the children express this unity in a far deeper and broader way than most adults. For example, we reflect together on the image of the True Vine about which Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” When I ask, “Who are the branches of the True Vine?”, the children invariably say “Everyone.” They include people of all countries, all religions, all ages. They even include those who have died. Returning to the parable of the Good Shepherd, children under six first begin to understand that the sheep are people, connecting the sheep to their family members and friends. But after six, they say all people are the sheep of the shepherd, “the whole world”. My own daughter, at the age of seven, came home one day and said, “I know who the sheep are; it’s everything in creation the stars, the plants, the animals…And we (humans) are the “other sheep” being called to the flock of the Good Shepherd.”

This sense of communion with creation explains why many children are deeply grieved about environmental abuses, killing animals for meat, wars and other catastrophes that do not touch their lives directly. Why do they care? Because their empathy and sense of communion connect them to this pain. As adults our awareness of communion is renewed as we work with children. We must be much more careful not to draw lines among peoples and limit the children’s area of concern to our town, our religion, or our people, but nurture children’s universal sense of communion that will motivate their moral actions.


“Empathy is not enough. [Another] crucial building block of morality is self-discipline” (Daniel, p. 54). Coles wrote, “A well-developed conscience does not translate, necessarily, into a morally courageous life” (Coles, p. 21). Guided by a sensitive conscience and inspired by a willing heart, many people are still unable to take moral action or refrain from immoral action. Their bodies are undisciplined and seem to be “out of control”. And so we must also be attentive to the preparation of the body, self-discipline, in moral formation. Montessori believed that the only true discipline is self-discipline, and that it is developed through movement, not immobilization. She wrote, “Discipline must come through liberty.” An artificially silenced and immobilized child has been “annihilated” rather than disciplined (Montessori, 1964, p. 86).

Children under six begin their work in a Montessori classroom with a series of exercises called “practical life”. These are activities such as handwashing, sweeping, polishing, flower arranging, table scrubbing, pouring and folding with materials that fit comfortably in the child’s hand. They allow the children to be very independent in caring for themselves and their environment. But they also build a firm connection between the mind’s direction and the body’s action. So the movement of the child gradually becomes self-controlled and purposeful: self-disciplined. Then the child can choose to run with joy and speed across a field, can choose to move small beads one by one in order to count and calculate, or choose to sit completely still to observe a bird feeding its young. Montessori said, “We call an individual disciplined when he is master of himself and can therefore regulate his own conduct” (Montessori, 1964, p. 86).

How often today do we tolerate inappropriate behavior by saying, “He means well, but…” or, “She has a very sweet nature but…”  It seems that undisciplined children and adults abound these days, excused by labels or various disorders or stresses. But these situations are not excuses. Even when the struggle is great and a difficulty identified, we must expect and help the child to achieve self-discipline. They cannot live a healthy and fruitful life without it.

Again Montessori wrote, “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity…because our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience” (Montessori, 1964, p. 93).

The young child focuses her work on her immediate world, her self, her home, and her classroom. The older child begins to want to work in the community as well. In our school the children over six participate eagerly in such projects as a community mural, planting a school garden, or raising money for a sister school in Uganda. Some of our nine- to twelve-year old children directed their energy towards impoverished orphans in Haiti. These older children are learning, through their self-disciplined efforts, that they can make a positive difference in their world when given the opportunity for meaningful work. Truly “great and victorious” human work, Montessori notes, is not spurred by prizes or punishments but “stand upon the inner force” (1964, 24).


Preparation of the mind is addressed directly after age six as the child’s conscience begins to develop. Cavalletti defines conscience as a new capacity of judgment. Before age six, a child’s understanding of right and wrong is based exclusively on the judgments of others, and the consequences of certain behavior. A child may have heard that it is “bad” to run into the street, and gets a time out or rebuke when she does so. She knows that it is “bad” to run into the street, but she hasn’t made this judgment herself. It is her parent’s judgment and the consequences of misbehavior that have convinced her. After age six the child begins to exercise her own moral judgment. She can think about running into the street and understand that it is “bad” not because running is bad, not because streets are bad, but because of the danger of moving vehicles.

We have two tools to support the development and exercise of the conscience: moral tales and general principles. Moral tales are stories in which two or more types of behavior are modeled and the children are invited to exercise their judgment about the behavior. In our setting these tales are taken from the parables of Jesus, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. The children are not at all involved in the story, and so are not threatened by the judgment; their stance is distanced and objective. In their own good time, the children take the modeled behavior they have judged to be better and use it to guide or judge their own actions.

General principles are also offered from one’s faith tradition. In our case we first use the maxims of Jesus from the Gospels, such as, “Love your enemy” and “Do good to those who hate you.” Later, we offer the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures. These principles are often related to the lessons of the parables. In a world where all kinds of moral and immoral activity is modeled around the children, to sort out the rules that could guide one’s decisions is a great challenge. Offering them general principles from their beloved Good Shepherd is not a tedious prohibition or obligation but a gift to the children.

Finally, the conscience is supported by heroic role models. Not super heroes with powers children do not have, but real people who have made choices and lived lives that model and inspire moral actions. They are prophets, saints, and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, or heroic children like Ruby Bridges, who at the age of six, walked through hostile crowds with a peaceful spirit, to integrate her public school in New Orleans (Coles, p. 22). These models are important, especially to nine-to-twelve-year-old children who are working hard to follow the guidelines and judgments of their conscience. Do not forget that we too are models for the children to follow, for good or bad. Every parent may be a hero, every teacher an inspiration, for one or many children. Our choices model for them how our own conscience is followed, compromised, or ignored on a daily basis.


We have focused on moral formation as a preparation of the heart, mind, and body. But what is purpose of the moral life? A moral person makes many choices each day and acts on those decisions. But a moral life also has a greater dimension. Awareness of one’s life in the tide of history calls forth a moral vocation, a sense of working with God and humankind to contribute to the common good. We offer a vision of history from our faith that begins with creation and moves toward a time of universal peace, justice and union that New Testament calls the “Parousia” and the Hebrew Scriptures call “Shalom”. This movement is first of all God’s work. But we are invited to collaborate with God. All of creation contributes to this work, but unconsciously. For example, trees and coral clean the air and water for the good of all the earth. But the cooperation of people is conscious and voluntary; it is a moral decision to make one’s life work to move humankind closer to a time of universal wholeness, or shalom (Wolf, p. 89-98).

Coles wrote, “I believe that the active idealism we see in some of our young takes place when a beckoning history offers, uncannily, a blend of memory and desire; a chance to struggle for a new situation that holds a large promise” (Coles, p. 33). Buber spoke of our participation in this effort as well. “Creation–we participate in it, we encounter the creator, and offer ourselves as helpers and companions” (Buber, p. 130).

Let’s think about Kevin at the basketball game once again. Preparation of the heart motivated him to act on behalf of his friend. Preparation of the body enabled him to move to his friend’s aid rather than watch, frozen, when he was threatened. Preparation of the mind enabled him to choose a path that defended his friend without violence toward the adult involved. A vision of the justice of shalom committed him to acting when he easily could have remained an observer.

With a complete preparation of the child, involving the heart, body, and mind, and a vision of their unique and necessary role in history, we can set their feet on a path of hope and love.


Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.

Cavalletti, Sofia. “God in Search of the Child”. Unpublished.

—————. Moral Formation. Lecture notes,1984.

—————. The Religious Potential of the Child. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1983.

—————. Teaching Doctrine and Liturgy. New York: Alba House, 1964.

Coles, Robert. The Moral Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1982.

Daniel, M. and W. Herbert. “The Moral Child”. US News and World Report , June 3, 1996.

Montessori, Maria. The Child in the Church. St. Paul: Catechetical Guild Educational Society, 1996.

—————. From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford: Clio Press, 1994.

—————. The Montessori Method. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.

—————. The Secret of Childhood. Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, Inc., 1966.

Scharf, P. Readings in Moral Education. Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1978.

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Ricmond: United Press, 1976.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951.

Whitely, Opal. Opal, the Journal of an Understanding Heart. New York: Crown, 1976.

Wolf, Aline, Nurturing the Spirit in Non-sectarian Classrooms. Hollidaysburg, PA: Parent Child Press, 1996.

Center for Children and Theology

Copyright © 2000

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Children and Theology

Issue I January 2000 Theology is “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm). But in the 20th Century theologians have learned to pay attention to whose faith is seeking understanding of what