Ages and Stages: Learning Right from Wrong

As part of social and emotional growth, a child’s moral development begins at birth. Early, caring experiences create trust, laying the foundation for positive relationships in the future. That foundation for ethical behavior with others builds over the first five years, as a child’s sense of justice and understanding of right and wrong behavior grows. Parents and other caregivers are crucial to this process.

How can you help your child develop moral “intelligence” from birth? Here are some ideas:

Ages 0-1: Infants learn right from wrong through experience. When a baby is hungry, wet, or lonely, it feels bad, uncomfortable, scary and “wrong.” When adults offer care and nurturing, it feels good and “right.” By promptly responding to a baby’s basic needs, including holding, singing, reading, and speaking from the start–along with feeding and changing–parents and caregivers help infants bond and feel safe. Early, secure attachment impacts moral and other learning: By the end of the first year, most babies learn to imitate, initiate contact, and communicate feelings and preferences, and are beginning to develop some understanding of what is okay to do–and what isn’t.

Ages 1-3: Toddlers begin to understand the idea of rules, and can start to respond if told not to do something. While they begin to realize that others have feelings and needs, it can be difficult for toddlers to resist acting impulsively. For example, when an 18-month-old wants a toy, he or she is as likely to grab it from another child. At this stage, children do not yet have the ability to truly distinguish between right and wrong on their own. Instead, they rely on parents to define morality, and learn that “right” is being obedient. By consistently offering guidance and correction, parents teach children about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and that consequences follow actions.

Ages 4-5: Rather than just being directed by adults, preschoolers begin to develop their own ideas of right and wrong based on what they learn in their families. With increasing sociability and a growing understanding of the feelings and rights of other people, “moral intelligence” develops as well. While they still need lots of guidance and reminding, children now begin to develop a strong sense of justice and awareness of

acceptable behavior. By discussing ethical situations and talking about feelings to develop empathy and compassion, parents can help children develop a moral code. Through offering positive guidance and setting clear boundaries, expectations, and consequences for moral behavior, parents can help preschoolers clarify values and build ethical behavior for life.


Leading By Example

Children observe and absorb your family’s values. Becoming conscious of how you show ethical behavior–from giving back change if you are undercharged to being kind to others–is a more powerful teacher of values than any lecture on right and wrong.

Did You Know…

It feels bad to do something wrong, from lying to cheating. Did you know that studies also show that doing the right thing has the opposite effect, actually enhancing overall happiness? Be good to feel good!

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