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
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.