What Is Moral Sequencing?

What is Moral Sequencing? - Parenting Like Hannah
Photo by John Lemieux
Sequencing is a very important skill for children to learn in preparation for reading. Sequencing usually involves a child being given a set of pictures. He may be told which is first in the sequence. He must then decide the order of the remaining pictures. He makes the decisions based on what he thinks the outcome will be from what happens in the previous picture.

Sequencing is also an important math skill.  A child needs to learn how to sequence numbers properly in order to count.  Sometimes a child is given a set of numbers in some unnamed pattern. The child must decide which numbers come next by deciphering the pattern. (Which is what you do in counting. You are actually adding one to the previous number.)

Moral sequencing is the ability to predict with some accuracy the future ethical outcome of behavioral decisions made now.  This often forces a person to look several steps ahead of the current decision and determine if what she is about to do will ultimately lead to a positive or a negative outcome. Good decisions would result in outcomes that keep you on a path towards God. Bad choices lead to moving you farther away from God. (Don’t bother looking in the dictionary. I think I probably made this up, but it makes sense to me!)

I knew a preacher who used to say that office affairs don’t begin in the hotel room. They begin when a person is spending too much time and sharing too many personal details with someone of the opposite sex. When someone begins those types of office friendships, I don’t believe they are setting out determined to destroy their marriage. The problem is a moral sequencing issue.  They can only project the result of the one step they are taking now. In the minds of most people, this merely means they have gotten what they wanted out of the situation.  They have not been trained to continue the process out several more steps in the future and see the moral problems their current behavior may eventually cause.

Children may exhibit poor moral sequencing skills in more innocuous ways.  Perhaps your child decides to sneak and stay up past his bedtime texting a friend. The reasoning is contained to an “If I do this, I will get what I want” one step sequence. He is unable to project additional steps. If he did, he may remember he has a test the next day. Because he is tired, he may not do as well on the test. This is the final test of the year and means the difference between a “B” and a “C”.  If he gets a “C” in the class, his auto insurance rates will go up. He will no longer be able to afford insurance which means he won’t be allowed to drive anymore. If he had been able to use sequencing well, he may have decided to obey and go to bed on time.

Most parents probably believe they are teaching moral sequencing skills through discipline. What they are actually teaching though is behavior modification. Behavior modification is very useful if you are trying to correct one specific behavior. For example, you want your child to stop hitting her sibling every time he sits next to her. Applying a negative consequence every time she hits her brother when he sits next to her should eventually cause her to stop.

There are a couple of problems with behavior modification.  Young children may not easily extend the principle to other behaviors. Your daughter may reason (however wrongly), that you only told her not to hit. You didn’t forbid sticking her tongue out at her brother.

The other problem is that it can encourage some children to hide the forbidden behaviors. Basically you are teaching them to avoid the consequence. A bright child might easily reason that if she isn’t caught hitting her brother, then no consequence can be given.

You can eventually teach a child to generalize proper behavior and not hide inappropriate behavior. The problem is that behavior modification still does not teach your child how to analyze a totally new situation and project the possible outcomes of various choices. He may be forced to use trial and error to determine if certain behaviors are a wise choice. That is what happens when you hear about a child falling off of a roof.  His one step sequence was “Wow, if I jumped off of the roof and flapped my wings like a bird, wouldn’t it feel fun?!”

Granted the ability to use moral sequencing requires some life experience (usually involving behavior modification!), Bible knowledge and a developmental ability to think ahead. I believe though that there are some concrete activities you can do with your children to improve their ability to use moral sequencing. Hopefully, teaching your children these skills will make it easier for them to stay on the path towards God. I will share those ideas with you in my next post.

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Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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