It’s snack time and several 3-year-olds are sitting around a table. Each child has two crackers, but one of the children has taken a third. Several other children notice and a chorus of “that’s not fair!” fills the room. A neighboring peer takes the extra cracker away and replaces it in the snack basket. Where does this sense of fairness and right from wrong come from, and what are the best methods for teaching kids right from wrong?
What Research Says
An understanding of morality starts emerging in the first year of life. Imagine your baby is watching a puppet show and a circle puppet is working hard, trying to make its way up a hill. Soon, a square comes along and gives the circle a helpful push up the incline. Then, a triangle comes on stage and pushes the circle down the hill.
After a group of 6- to 10-month-old infants watched this show at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, each was offered the helpful square puppet and the naughty triangle puppet on a tray. The babies overwhelmingly reached for the helpful puppet, showing their preference for the “good guy” and confirming that even babies have preferences based on how individuals treat one another.
While infants may not have the ability to tell us why certain behaviors are good or bad, they seem to be born with certain “moral foundations” that allow them to develop a more mature and nuanced sense of right and wrong as they grow.
What Can Parents Do?
Early experiences and relationships help children learn what is right and wrong, and help them develop a conscience. Here are some simple methods for teaching kids right from wrong:
- Build a strong and loving relationship with your child. Nurturing relationships—ones in which young children feel loved, understood and cared for—provide the foundation for good character traits and confidence.
- Be honest and humble about your own mistakes. It is important to model how to repair relationships and apologize: “I’m sorry I yelled at you for slamming the door. I know you feel badly when I yell and I will try to avoid yelling in the future.”
- Help children develop empathy. Empathy is the capacity to observe the feelings of another person and respond with care and concern. You can help children develop empathy and compassion by guiding them to decode and label how others might feel in different situations: “Molly looks angry; maybe it’s because Hannah knocked down her block tower.” Then, you can prompt children to think about what they might do to help others feel better: “Would you like to help Molly build her tower again?”
- Point out differences in other people’s thoughts and feelings. The ability to understand and respect that other people have different thoughts and feelings is the foundation of an important concept called “theory of mind,” which is critical to developing empathy. Engage your child in conversations that explore the thoughts and feelings of others: “Ben loves going on the Ferris wheel, but I don’t enjoy riding Ferris wheels. What do you like?”
- Talk about your own decisions in terms of right and wrong. Have discussions with your child about everyday situations that demonstrate moral behavior: “The cashier forgot to scan the paper towels on the bottom of our cart. We could have left the store without paying for them, but I don’t think that’s right. So I reminded the cashier to scan them.”
- Help children understand their feelings. Young ones often need help to make sense of their feelings. Feelings are not right or wrong, but the way we act on our feelings can be helpful or not-so-helpful: “Taylor, I see how angry you are that Charlie took your train. But hitting is not okay. Hitting hurts. If you are really mad at Charlie, you can say: ‘I’m mad! I want my train back!’”
- Set age-appropriate guidelines. It’s important for children to abide by rules that are grounded in kindness and respect. When children break rules, adults should calmly describe what happened and set the limit: “You hit your friend and he is crying. Hands should not be used for hitting people.” Encourage your child to offer a simple kindness or gentle touch to the child he has hurt.
- Stay patient. Like all skills, character, morality and empathy develop over time. While children show empathy for others starting very early in life, they are not yet able to show respect and moral decision-making consistently, even as preschoolers.
Developing character and teaching kids right from wrong is a process that starts early and continues throughout your child’s life. For more helpful resources on nurturing positive character traits, visit Zero to Three or explore more Pointers for Parents content.
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