A Guide to the Moral Development of Preschoolers
By Amy Morin, LCSW for Very Well Family
As your little one grows, he’ll develop a sense of morality—those principles that affect how he treats other people and how he views justice. His core beliefs, temperament, and life experiences are just a few things that will influence his sense of morality.
Every day, your preschooler is surrounded by people and situations that will guide his moral development. Whether it’s another child on the school playground or a plot line on a favorite TV show, his experiences shape his views.
As a parent, you probably want to have some influence on how he develops his sense of right versus wrong and instill the values that you deem to be important. However, it’s not always easy to know what’s age-appropriate when it comes to guiding your child morally—or even how to start.
What Parents Should Know About Early Moral Development
Around age 2, children start to feel moral emotions and understand—at least somewhat—the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. Your child might also start to feel empathy if he sees another child who is upset, though that development is more likely to appear closer to age 4 or 5.
Toddlers and preschoolers are motivated by the threat of consequences. Therefore, early on in their moral development, you might see that they’re more concerned about being punished rather than the feelings of another person.
Don’t worry if your toddler doesn’t seem to care if he hurt someone.
With some guidance from you, empathy will come in due time.
How to Recognize the Moral Choices Preschoolers Make
Although preschoolers aren’t making life-altering life decisions, they do make small moral choices every day. Here are a few moral decisions your preschooler may be faced with:
- Do I share my toy with a friend even though I don’t want to?
- Do I hit the person who won’t play with me?
- Should I take my sister's toy from her because I want to play with it?
- Do I cut in line because I don’t want to wait my turn?
- Do I sneak a cookie when Dad’s not looking?
While your child will violate your moral codes quite often, each time he steps out of line is an opportunity to help him learn. The discipline strategies you employ, combined with the proactive strategies you use to teach him right from wrong, will guide your preschooler’s moral development.
Be Clear About Morals
Research shows kids begin to understand the 'moral of the story' around age 5 or 6. But, preschoolers are less able to grasp a life lesson from a story about someone else. The concept is too abstract.
So it's important to be very concrete about morals. Say specific things like, "We don't take other people's belongings because it's wrong to take things that don't belong to us. It hurts other people's feelings when we do that and our job is to be kind to people, not hurt them."
As your child's understanding of morals increases, begin to ask him to identify the life lessons in a story. Read books and watch stories with various moral lessons and check for your child's understanding of how he can generalize that lesson to his own life.
Additionally, monitor closely what your child is exposed to. TV shows, books, or video games that violate moral codes without teaching a lesson may have a negative influence on your child.
Instill Guilt, Not Shame
When your preschooler violates a moral code by hurting other people, he should have an emotional reaction to it. And while guilt is a sign of a healthy conscience, shame can be a sign of low self-worth. Here's the difference:
Shame stems from thinking, "I am bad."
Guilt stems from thinking, "I did a bad thing."
As a parent, you want to guide the child into feeling guilt rather than shame.
A child who feels guilty may recognize she's still a good person who is capable of making better choices in the future.
Guilt is a normal, healthy reaction. It means your child regrets what he’s done—and that can motivate him to make amends. Guilty feelings may also prevent him from making the same mistake in the future.
Shame, on the other hand, may cause your child to believe she’s incapable of doing the right thing. And it may take a toll on the decisions she makes in life. A child who feels shame, for example, may not resist peer pressure or may not stand up for herself when her rights are violated.
Reprimand Your Child for Bad Choices, Not for Being a Bad Person
As a parent, you can influence whether your child experiences shame or guilt after he makes a mistake. If you express anger at your child or become standoffish, he’ll be more likely to feel shame.
So avoid reprimanding your child's character by saying things like, “Bad girl!” or “I’m so disappointed in you.” Instead, focus on your child's actions by saying things like, “You made a bad choice,” or “I’m disappointed you made a bad choice.”
Additionally, correct your child’s behavior, not the emotion. So instead of saying, “Stop getting so mad,” or “There’s nothing to be upset about,” say things like, “Use an inside voice. It bothers people when you yell inside.”
Make it clear that feeling sad, mad, excited, or any other emotion is OK. But hitting people, calling them names, or treating them poorly isn’t acceptable.
Offer Praise for Prosocial Behavior
Praise your child for what she does, rather than who she is. So instead of saying, “You’re a good girl,” say, “Great job helping Grandma carry groceries. That was a kind thing to do.”
Be on the lookout for times when your child decides to share, console someone else, tell the truth, or help others. When you point out positive choices, your child will become more motivated to keep up the good work.
Teach Your Child About Feelings
Your child won't be able to understand other people's feelings and how his actions affect others until he has a clear understanding of his own feelings.
Use feeling words in your everyday conversations. Label your child's emotions by saying things like, "It looks like you feel angry right now," or "I understand you are sad that we can't play outside right now."
When your child understands his emotions, he'll be able to start understanding that other people have feelings too. And you can begin talking about how his behavior influences how other people feel.
Teach your child how to consider someone else's emotions and how one person's behavior can impact another person's feelings. Take situations from books, TV or movies and ask your child how a person in that scenario might feel.
To really reinforce the point, ask your child to show you how the person might feel. When your child makes a sad face to reflect how a character might feel after getting hurt, he’ll actually feel sad for a second. That can reinforce to him that other people have emotions too.
Model Good Morals
As the saying goes, practice what you preach. If you don’t want your children to tell lies, don’t let them see you lie. Even if you think it’s a little ‘white lie,’ your child will think dishonesty is OK.
If you want your children to help others, make sure they see you helping others. And point out what you’re doing by saying things like, “We’re going to help Grandpa clean the garage today because we love him and it’s a nice thing to do.”
Your child will learn a lot more from what you do, rather than what you say. So make sure your actions match your words.
Schedule Activities That Teach Your Child Your Morals
As long as you accompany them, your preschooler can volunteer and help others in a variety of ways. Whether you feed cats at the local SPCA together, or you collect canned food to donate to the food pantry, emphasize the importance of making the world better.
Even simple acts of kindness go a long way in developing a good moral sense. For example, make a “get well soon” card together for a neighbor who’s feeling under the weather. Then, deliver it together with a Tupperware of chicken noodle soup.
Hold Your Child Accountable for Breaking Moral Codes
Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s important to make sure your child knows that it’s OK. However, you can’t just let it go—hold your little one accountable.
Verbalize why his behavior was wrong when he makes a mistake. Say, “We don’t hit people because it hurts their feelings and their bodies.” Then, give him a consequence, such as placing him in time-out or taking away his favorite toy for the afternoon.
Forcing him to apologize isn’t likely to be helpful. He may not actually feel sorry so telling him to apologize to his brother may just be lip service.
But, you can role model how to apologize. When you make a mistake, tell your child that you’re sorry. Say something like, “I am sorry I didn’t get home in time to take you to the park. I tried to get home as soon as I could but it’s too dark to go now.”
Remember, guiding your child’s moral development isn’t something that happens in just a couple weeks. This will be a process that will last long into your child’s elementary school years and beyond.
There will be times your child will make mistakes that make you wonder if anything you’re doing actually resonates with him. Don’t worry—he hears you. With consistent guidance from you, he’ll develop a clear moral compass.