Identity Development in Gifted Children: Moral Sensitivity

Updated: Feb 7, 2019

By Deirdre V. Lovecky.


Starting from an early age, many gifted children show evidence of moral sensitivity. These children tend to care about others, want to relieve pain and suffering or show advanced ability to think about such abstract ideas as justice and fairness. The beginnings of moral sensitivity are found in the development of empathy between child and care-taking parent. This is also the basis of identity formation and development of the self. This article also includes a discussion of how the phenomenon of asynchrony manifests in moral development of gifted children and the paradigms these children develop to give form to their moral concerns.

Manuscript submitted January, 1997; Revision accepted September, 1997.

When Rorey was six, he befriended Carl, age twelve, who was developmentally disabled. Other children teased and tormented Carl, especially Todd. Rorey stood up to these tormentors, though Todd was twice his age and size. This so surprised Todd that he stopped teasing Carl. When asked why he had helped Carl, Rorey stated he knew that Carl needed a friend, and it was the right thing to do to be his friend and defend him. He felt teasing others was wrong. He never engaged in such behavior himself, even later in the elementary years when teasing is a game most boys play.

On a shopping expedition, three-year-old Crissy told her mother that she did not need any new clothes. She also would not allow her mother to buy her toys even though her mother had planned several purchases with money Crissy had recently received from relatives. The only purchase Crissy would allow that day was a pair of shoes since she had outgrown her old ones. Instead, she wanted the money to be given to the poor.

Both Rorey and Crissy are gifted children with a high degree of sensitivity to moral issues. In these examples both children exhibit empathy for others and incorporate that empathy into moral choices. The literature suggests that, starting from an early age, many gifted children show evidence of sensitivity about moral concerns in their empathy for others, compassionate responses to the plight of others, idealism, concern about world issues, and in their advanced under-standing and judgment of moral issues (Galbraith, 1985; Roeper, 1988; Silverman, 1993, 1994). Roeper (1995), for example, described her experiences with young gifted children of preschool age who comforted others upset over separation from parents. The consoling child often described an awareness of knowing how others felt based on remembering how he or she had felt previously.

Sensitivity to moral issues was noted in gifted children as far back as Terman’s (1925) studies. These early studies showed gifted children to be advanced in trustworthiness and moral stability. Hollingworth (1942) gave many examples of early moral awareness, including a boy of nine who “wept bitterly at how the North taxed the South after the Civil War,” (p. 281). She saw this as an example of how good and evil in the abstract come to be troublesome for exceptionally gifted children. Hollingworth also mentioned specific traits of character related to moral development. Child D was noted to show a refusal to lie, loyalty to standards once adopted, readiness to admit to just criticisms, unselfishness and amiability (p. 121).

Following Hollingworth (1942), contemporary writers also mentioned concern about moral issues as important for the gifted from an early age. Gross’ (1993) studies of children with IQ’s over 160 found them far above age peers in conceptualization of fairness, justice, responsibility for self and responsibility towards others. Silverman (1994) suggested advanced moral sensitivity is an essential feature of being gifted, and described a number of unusually compassionate children who were intensely aware of world issues and the feelings of others.

A number of writers have shown advanced development in making moral judgments for gifted children when compared to age peers. On the Defining Issues Test (DIT) (Rest, 1979), based on Kohlberg’s premises, Janos and Robinson (1985) compared radically accelerated college students and two groups of highly gifted high school students with a group of typical undergraduate college students. They found the three groups of highly gifted students scored higher on the DIT, thus exhibiting higher levels of moral reasoning and judgment. Howard-Hamilton (1994) found that gifted high school students scored well above the norm for age peers on the DIT. Gross (1993) found that two of her exceptionally gifted students, at age twelve, scored above the levels of college students.

Theories of Moral Development Evaluating theories of moral development is difficult due to lack of a consistent definition. For some, moral development is seen principally as ability to reason about universal principles of justice and fairness (moral judgment). For others, it is a matter of ability to empathize with and act to alleviate others’ suffering (compassion). Both reasoning and compassion are necessary in formulating moral actions; however, it is the relative importance of each that distinguishes different theories.

Two of the main modern theories of moral development, Kohlberg’s (1984) and Gilligan’s (1982), are based on long standing, underlying philosophical arguments about the basis of moral development. Each is a stage theory in which people develop from one stage to the next as they grow in ability to make complex judgments. Where the theories differ is on how people make judgments.

Kohlberg’s (1984) theory focuses more on the use of reason to draw conclusions about what ought to be done to achieve justice and fairness in a particular situation. Altruism, compassion and empathy are less important than principles of justice, and are not the main part of the reasoned process of coming to moral decisions. The moral reasoner is one who knows that a moral decision is required, understands that principles need to be applied universally, thinks of the greatest good for the most people, and then makes a decision based on abstract principles of justice and fairness. Kohlberg’s theory follows Piaget’s and Inhelder’s (1969) thinking about the stages of mental development. Because Kohlberg’s (1984) theory is based on the ability to reason abstractly, young children are not seen as being able to reason about moral issues yet; they are pre-moral.

Another major avenue of exploration of moral issues is based on altruism. Modern philosophers such as Blum (1987) and Matthews (1994) suggested that childhood responsiveness to others is a primary moral characteristic. Responsiveness requires both a cognitive and affective grasp of a situation. It does not require true empathy yet, nor does it require that children be aware of why they act as they do, only that the act has been done.

What is required for an act to be moral is a recognition of the emotions of the other, and of the action needed to change the situation. What changes from childhood to adulthood is the amount and type of experience the person brings to the situation. For example, the adult might offer advice the young child might not yet know about. This model of morality has some similarity to the model of care developed by Gilligan (1982). In Gilligan’s model it is the interrelationships among people that are important, and these are based on empathic responses between people. Responding to another’s pain or difficulty is the basis of moral action. This requires an empathic attitude to others, a sensitivity to others’ needs, and a wish to act with these needs in mind. This type of thinking reflects sensitivity towards others rather than a focus on reasoning about what is a principled or unprincipled act.