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Supporting Moral Understanding in Young Children

How do you develop an understanding of morality in children? Most parents desire to teach their sons and daughters right from wrong; however, they might not know how or when to begin. Some may expect certain behavior from children before they are able to understand what to do.

While it is unlikely that 18-month-olds can consistently "know the good" and "choose the good," they do show remarkable concern for knowing about, doing, and not doing "good." As children develop their language and reasoning skills, their ability to understand right and wrong, the feelings of others, and possible consequences of their behavior also increases. It is in these early years that the desire to help and to live up to the standards of others begins to develop.

Preschool children show a developing moral knowledge by being able to give reasons why rules should be binding. They can see that breaking such rules are wrong because they hurt others. They also realize that disorder is created when social rules are broken. Although young children "test" or question the rules by teasing, refusing to cooperate, or tattling, parents should remember that these annoying traits reflect an early understanding of family standards and prohibited actions.

When parents realize that young children possess emerging moral abilities, they can view these abilities as strengths in their children. This is the first step in nurturing and building moral skills.

Children need adults to set clear and appropriate standards for behavior. This helps them develop an early understanding of family rules and expectations in order to judge whether they are doing the "right" thing.

Parents should respond to children's improper behavior in appropriate ways. When rules are broken, it is best to deal with the problem immediately and directly. Teach children the reasons for the rules so they can understand why they are important. When the incident occurs, have the child think of ways to resist the same temptation or how to handle the problem better next time.

Hostile punishment and taking away parental love is not an effective tool for teaching moral understanding. Frequently, severely punished children will stop the behavior only temporarily until the adult leaves. Children tend to follow the instructions from people they admire and love, not those they fear or distrust.

Adults who teach good moral behavior by serving as positive examples themselves are the most successful in encouraging children to behave helpfully and generously toward others. Role modeling is especially important for younger children to view. Parental warmth and consistency between what they say and do increases the child's willingness to imitate the behavior. Parents are also encouraged to explain why they are behaving in a certain way so children understand the reasons.

Ultimately, parents would like their children to choose to behave in moral ways. By nurturing moral understanding during the early years, parents can develop a strong foundation for this continuing process.