Where does a sense of fairness come from? How do children begin to develop a sense of right and wrong? As parents and caregivers, we have many opportunities to help children develop a strong moral sense.
Imagine 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 cracker. Several other children notice and a chorus of “That’s not fair!” fills the room. One of the other children takes the extra cracker away and puts it back in the snack basket.
Where does this sense of fairness come from? How do children begin to develop a sense of right and wrong? Believe it or not, moral awareness starts emerging very early in life—long before a child can tell us about it. New research shows that infants seem to be born with a certain “moral foundation.” As parents and caregivers, we have many opportunities to help children build upon this base.
What the Research Says
How do we measure the morals of babies before they can speak? Imagine your baby is watching a puppet show: A circle puppet is working hard, trying to make its way up a hill. Soon, a yellow square comes along and gives the circle a helpful push toward the top. Then, a red triangle comes onstage and pushes the circle down the hill. The end.
After a group of 6- to 10-month-old infants watched a puppet show at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, each was offered a helpful square puppet and a naughty triangle puppet on a tray. The babies overwhelmingly reached for the helpful puppet, showing their preference for the “good guy.”
When 18-month-olds were shown a similar puppet show, the toddlers were able to answer questions about “Who was good?” and “Who was bad?” Slightly older toddlers showed the same tendencies when asked to offer treats or punishments to the different puppets. They generally rewarded the helpful and kind character, and punished the “bad guy.” These interesting studies show that, even early in life, babies notice, and care, how individuals treat each another.
What Can We Do to Help?
1. We can offer kindness and model empathy.
Children’s early experiences in the world help shape their ability to make sense of what is right and wrong. Nurturing relationships in which young children feel loved, understood, and responded to, are the foundation for empathy and social-emotional development. As calm, steady caregivers, we help children develop a conscience. A good conscience is the internal voice that encourages us to act with compassion, respect, and fairness. It also prods us to make things right (as well as we can) when we do not behave our best.
2. We can highlight differences.
Toddlers don’t yet know that others have their own thoughts and feelings. Being able to understand this, and that other people are unique and separate from one another, is the foundation of an important concept called “theory of mind.” To foster this critical component of empathy, point out differences you observe in other people’s preferences, views, and feelings. For example, you might say to your child, “You don’t like peas very much. But your brother really loves them,” or, “Caden enjoys going on the Ferris wheel, but I don’t like it at all. What rides do you like?”
3. We can provide boundaries.
Setting age-appropriate rules that are grounded in kindness and respect also helps nurture the fairness and decency we all want to see in our children. For example, the rule might be that hands are for hugging or clapping, and not for hitting. When children break rules, adults can provide calm guidance. A child who hits can be encouraged to offer a simple kindness or gentle touch to the child who’s been hit.
4. We can help children make sense of their emotions.
Emotions are not right or wrong, but the way we act on them can be helpful or not-so-helpful. For example, “Taylor, I see how angry you are that Charlie took your train. You are really screaming! Let’s work this out together. When you are mad at Charlie, you can say, ‘I’m mad! Give me back my train!’” Move in close so you can keep everyone safe while you help.
Why Patience Is Key
Children do show empathy for others starting very early in life. In fact, babies cry more when they hear the cries of other babies than they do when they hear tape recordings of their own crying. But, like all skills, morality, ethics, and compassion develop over time. We need to keep this in mind when young children are not able to show kindness and moral decision-making on a regular basis. Developing character is a process that starts early and continues across your child’s life. You are their teacher, guide, trusted authority figure, and later—when they are adults—their friend.