Changing Conceptions of Conscience Development


Talk by Maryhelen Snyder

Given at the Ross Snyder Memorial Lecture

Department of Psychiatry

Child and Adolescent Division

University of New Mexico Medical School

May 7, 2004

Click here for download a PDF version of the full talk.


Jane Goodall tells the story of an eagle and a sparrow who were having a conversation about who could fly higher, and the sparrow claimed that it could. As they took off, the little sparrow hid itself in one of the great wings of the eagle. When they were as high as the eagle could fly, the sparrow took off from the wing of the eagle, - and thereby surpassed it, - or, one could equally say, fulfilled it.

Goodall then describes how her own journey has been dependent on the many eagle feathers that have held her in flight. Among the eagle feathers that have held me in preparing today’s presentation, and continue to hold me, are my husband Ross, and his mother and father, Martha Snyder and Ross Snyder, Sr. This lecture is in the greatest degree theirs. The work they did to put into practice the ideas about conscience development that had emerged from the work of John Dewey, Carl Rogers, Lev Vygotsky, and many others who were their eagle feathers, - continues to make a radical contribution to the fields of pedagogy, psychotherapy, child development research, and family development.


The ideas that I will present today remain radical in the sense that they are not as yet widely practiced by parents, teachers, and therapists. Nevertheless, they reflect I believe our deepest insights about what it means to be a person. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud, who so often expresses the belief that human instincts necessarily come into conflict with our need to establish a social order, writes this: “I beg you not to set too much value on my remarks about the destructive instinct. . . [It] arises from the instinct for mastery.” In the same essay, Freud also writes “What could be more natural than that we should persist in looking for happiness along the path in which we first encountered it . . . . loving and being loved.” In these two quotations, Freud formulates the foundational ideas of caring conscience, - the desire for mastery or full functioning, and the desire for mutual relationship, - which are the subject of this lecture.

Freud was a child of his times of course, and they are our times as well: He observed that “what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery.” Unfortunately, what we call our civilization perceives and cultivates the development of human conscience largely in the stages that Lawrence Kohlberg later outlined on the basis of studies (primarily of males) which were focused on “moral reasoning” in an already super-ego ridden society. In spite of the research that Carol Gilligan and Jean Baker Miller and their respective colleagues have done, and in spite of lesser known but detailed observations of children such as the one I will discuss today, any web search into conscience development will reveal the primacy of the view that children develop gradually from a pain/pleasure orientation to an outer-directed conscience in which fear and shame and the desire for approval are dominant, to, if all goes well, a stage of “mature guilt” in which conscience has been internalized and blame can be accepted.

One can readily find on the web and in widely read books the discipline approaches recommended for each of these stages of development. They tend to focus on the use of praise and reward to reinforce expected behaviors. The social orientation during Kohlberg’s pre-conventional stages 1 and 2 (generally found, he writes, at the elementary school level) are obedience and punishment, followed by individualism, instrumentalism, and exchange. The social orientation of his conventional stages, 3 and 4 (the stage of moral thinking that he perceives is that generally found in society) is toward being a “good boy or girl, man or woman” and seeing the importance of law and order. The post-conventional stages, 5 and 6, not reached in Kohlberg’s view by the majority of adults, is oriented toward an understanding of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others, the highest stage being based on respect for universal principle and the demands of individual conscience.

As I read about the philosophy and experience of the particular pre-school that I will be describing to you today, I observe, as you will, that the three and four year olds are daily revealing stage 5 of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral stages.

Some of what I say here may appear to contradict experiences and assumptions that you currently have. I would like to invite you to suspend those assumptions without in any way discarding them and to hold whatever I say that makes possible sense to you side-by-side with those already existing ideas.

The primary content of this lecture will be the unfolding of conscience in three and four year olds who attended a laboratory pre-school in Chicago directed by Ross’s mother for sixteen years during the decades of the 60s and 70s. The unfolding of conscience occurred there in the context of what Martha Snyder and her husband, Ross Snyder, Sr. co-founder of the pre-school, called the “justice culture.” What this sixteen year long laboratory pre-school revealed is the possibility of a civilization, or culture, that feels entirely nurturing to its participants, and a caring conscience in the young child that is founded on the child’s natural interest in mutual relationship and full functioning.

Let me read to you a brief episode from the book “The Young Child as Person: Toward the Development of Healthy Conscience” which documents the sixteen years of this pre-school with dozens of anecdotal records.

Just as a democracy holds certain “truths [about human beings] to be self-evident,” the justice culture of the pre-school holds three “essential convictions” about children. These convictions are a lens, so to speak, like all formulations of human behavior, through which we see the human being.

Truths or convictions are commitments to ways of seeing, thinking, listening, speaking, and acting that are extremely challenging to live by. We need only think of the concept that “All human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to immediately make visible to ourselves the myriad exceptions to that truth that we make every day.

Here are the three convictions held at this pre-school:

  1. Every child wants to function [fully].

  2. Every child wants to be in relationship.

  3. Every child experiences that [There is an exciting world to explore].

In the following episode (taken verbatim from the book), Joe and Jill are fighting over a doll and doll carriage:

Because of the tensions in their homes that were beyond the control of the parents, Jill’s and Joe’s life worlds had become fragile. One morning in December, Jill and Joe both want the doll carriage, a certain doll, and a blanket. Neither of them had played with these toys before. Joe has been wheeling the carriage with a doll in it around the yard. Jill tells me that she wants it. I tell her Joe is using it now but that she can get another doll and put it in a wagon and pull it. She does this but then goes directly to Joe.

  1. Jill: “Joe, do you want to pull the wagon?”

  2. Joe: “No.”

  3. Jill tries to take the doll and carriage from Joe. They get into a real fight – pulling, crying, and kicking. I put my arm around Jill and get down to talk to Joe.

  4. Mrs. S: “Joe, you want the carriage and the dolly very much.”

  5. Joe: (Still crying) “Yes, yes.”

  6. Mrs. S: “You like the dolly so much you would like to wheel her around all morning?”

  7. Joe: “Yes.” (He stops crying)

  8. Mrs. S: “Joe, Jill likes the dolly too. She would like to wheel her. Joe, you wheel her for five more minutes and then let Jill have a turn.

  9. Jill: “He may have seven minutes.”

  10. Mrs. S: “Jill, seven is more than five.”

  11. Jill: “Yes.”

  12. Mrs. S: “Joe, Jill says you may have seven minutes.”

  13. Very pleased, Joe starts off with the doll carriage. Then he turns around and comes back.

  14. Joe: “Here, Jill, you may have it.”

  15. Jill: “That wasn’t seven minutes, was it, Mrs. Snyder? He is sort of silly, not taking his turn.”

  16. Mrs.S: “No, Jill, Joe isn’t silly. He knows how much you want to wheel the dolly. So he is giving you his turn.”

Episodes like these reveal what is involved in beginning to care for someone else. The teacher took time to understand what was going on in the situation and within each child. By communicating this with both children, she let them become part of the effort. Once they understood the meaning of what was going on and felt cared for themselves, they began to care for the other person.

Joe came to understand that the teacher understood how much the doll carriage meant to him. “Joe, you want the carriage and the dolly very much, don’t you?” “You like the dolly so much you would like to wheel her around all morning.” Once the teacher is recognizing his feelings, he is free to hear what the teacher is reporting about Jill’s feelings and care about them too. The whole process of caring has a rightness about it for him. By hearing Jill’s feelings put into words by someone who cares for both of them, he hears and understands her feelings and needs. He begins to see her as a person with feelings and wants. He sees that she suffers as he does. He cares for another self. Jill at the same time understands how much the doll and carriage means to Joe and says, “You may have seven minutes.” He is a person too, not an enemy. To each of them, in spite of their own personal needs, the other child becomes part of his and her life world as a human being. They begin to see each other as persons.

The basis of conscience is the ability to care for another self because that self has feelings.

One of the aspects of this episode that is especially significant is that there is no message, explicit or implicit, that sets up any opposition between feelings and actions that are “selfish” and feelings and actions that are “unselfish.” These concepts are missing in a culture that holds the three convictions about children stated above. Joe and Jill’s desire to play with a doll carriage and doll with which they are having (or have had) a joyful experience is honored without any sense that this particular need of a child is selfish. Conversely, sharing is not seen as something that requires unselfishness and the inhibition of the child’s needs. The desire for relationship is seen as equal to the desire to function freely and fully. The children are meeting powerful needs when they give each other more of a turn than the teacher has suggested, not to gain the teacher’s approval, but to care for each other.

Freud described “the sense of guilt as the most important problem in civilization.” He saw the toll that it takes on the human psyche and spirit. Yet in most of his writing, he appears to perceive our desire to meet our own needs as coming into inevitable conflict with the needs of others and the needs of society as a whole which civilization addresses. Without punishment and criticism, and later the internalization of these as superego, he found it difficult to imagine how conscience could develop in the child.

I will be addressing throughout this lecture how the formulation and development of conscience in this laboratory pre-school is relevant for us as clinicians and teachers, as well as in many cases as parents, and certainly as participants in the making of a world in which there is a greater manifestation of love and justice and a diminishment of human-caused suffering.

Click here for download a PDF version of the full talk.

The Interpersonal Formation of Conscience in Childhood and Adolescence