Why should I? stage 5: because we agreed.

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Stage 5: social contract orientation. Teenage years onwards 

  • Sometime post puberty the child begins to see the world as comprising many individuals and many groups, each holding different opinions, values and rights.  Rules are not rigid edicts, but are considered social contracts that are cooperatively made for overall benefit of those involved.  In developing these contracts, individuals make claims on each other, try to understand each other, compromise, and then make an agreement. Pre-existing rigid rules are seen only as guides, and can be changed or even disobeyed if necessary for “the greater good” of those involved.  
  • So a good action is one that is agreed upon. 

Stage 5 morality occurs when we want to listen to and understand each other.  It is then that we can compromise and come to an agreed outcome, even if we have to agree to disagree.  Effectively the message to the other person is, “You are important to me, as is your opinion, and I will consider you and together we will come up with what is good for us”.    

Now of course a family is not a democracy. Children are dependent and are not equal to a parent, and generally a parent has the final veto over the children they are responsible for.  However, the more you can go with or compromise with their wishes in the small things, the easier it will be for them to accept those times when it does have to be the parents way.   Even if your child is a relatively independent teenager / young adult, they may be unable to engage in stage 5 morality approach for various reasons; the chief of these being when a rupture has occurred that has not yet been repaired, making cooperation very difficult. 

Those who have watched the videos about repair know that it is only once all are cool, calm and connected, that they can have a conversation.  And this conversation would generally include:

  1. I want to understand and consider you.  Do you want to understand and consider me?
  2. I’m sorry for my part in the problem, and how can I help to fix it.    Do you want to know if there’s something I’d like you to be sorry for and how you can help fix it?
  3. Then the plan is made together (the contract): what are we going to agree on and do from here the next time this thing comes up.

Every time you model or offer repair, you are really offering an experience of stage 5 morality.  Even if your child has not reached abstract thinking (around puberty and beyond), getting into a habit of increasingly offering this from late primary school onwards helps the process of considering others and what is good for the relationship: 

“I know what I want, I’m interested in what you want, and so let us choose together what is good for us”  

The family meeting approach is another way of modelling the social contract and developing stage 5 morality: we all come together, listen to each other, understand each other, consider each other, and come up with a plan for a set period of time that we can all agree to.  And the contract is not rigid and set in stone for ever, but can be altered or abandoned as needed by those it effects, according to its success or failure to achieve the values that all agree upon. In the family approach, all who want a say are considered, but no one person dominates the others.  Over time, everyone gets heard, everyone gets something, and everyone misses out: vital experiences for your child to have and get over if they are to manage the successes and failures that life will inevitably bring up.

Stage 5 morality also underpins liberal democracy in that there is a social contract that we all abide by.  All adults get an equal vote on a topic, we all participate, and then we agree to abide by the majority vote, even if we don’t personally like it.  So another way to help develop stage 5 morality in teenagers is to discuss the politics of the day.  Modeling the desire to listen to and understand your child’s thoughts about issues of the day, and then offering them the opportunity to understand the other side is useful.  As an example of this, a teacher of one of my children got all their students to think about something they all strongly believed to be true, and to give their strongest argument for it.  Once they had done this, she then got them to articulate the strongest argument they could muster against their belief.  It made quite an impression, and echoes John Stuart Mills from his 1859 book “On Liberty”:

“He who only knows his own side of the case knows little of that” 

Every time you find yourself sincerely saying to your child something like, “Help me understand more about that”, offering to them, “Do you want to know what I think about that”, and finishing with “So what do you think we should do”, you are modelling stage 5 morality.  But remember, if they are not cool, calm and connected, they will probably reject your offer the first couple of times.  In that case, taking a break before trying again is the best way forward.