Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Learning Right From Wrong: How Does Morality Develop?

Babies understand others' feelings, but don't always act like it.

"That child is so bad! He needs somebody to teach him right from wrong." An adult who says this usually really means that he or she would like someone to scold or spank that annoying child. "Teaching" is so often assumed to mean punishing a child for undesirable behavior, and "knowing right from wrong" seems to involve memorizing a list of bad acts and of good acts that will govern a lifetime of moral decision-making. But children who are often punished do not seem to get any "better", and many of them grow up to feel they should be able to get their own wishes by brute force--- not real morality by the standards of people who have given this a lot of thought. So, how do children actually achieve the levels of moral thought that most adults consider appropriate?

This is one of many questions considered in Alison Gopnik's recent book "The Philosophical Baby", which examines thirty years of work on young children's social cognition, and the implications of this work for understanding both children's and adults' thinking. Like many other modern thinkers working on this topic (for examples, you can look at some of the papers in "Parenting Beyond Belief", edited by Dale McGowan), Gopnik connects moral development with empathy--- an ability that begins almost at birth.

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Most moral decisions are related to the feelings of other people about what we do, whether it's a matter of their sadness when we steal their possessions or their happiness when we help them find comfort. Empathy is the ability to identify others' emotions cognitively and to share or experience them almost as if they were our own. Experiencing emotion empathically seems to be the one thing that convinces us that other people can suffer or enjoy just as we can, and that their suffering and joy are as important as our own. This conviction is our motivation to try to make moral decisions that will alleviate others' misery; without it, we would find it much more difficult to decide to do things that will benefit others, especially if those things mean that we ourselves don't get all the benefits we might otherwise grab.

Of course, it's just about impossible to demonstrate that very young babies (in the first few months) care what happens to other people. They can't tell us this, can't show it very well, and aren't in a position to do things that are good or bad for other people. They can sometimes imitate our facial expressions or gestures in ways that show they are watching us carefully, but this doesn't happen all the time, because young babies are easily distracted and often get hungry or tired-- personal motives that seem to overwhelm their attention to the rest of the world. But one interesting tendency they have is to pay more attention to people who show certain kinds of facial expressions or manners. For example, young babies are very attentive to adults who talk enthusiastically in a high-pitched voice and use exaggerated expressions, raising their eyebrows, smiling, and moving their heads emphatically. Babies get bored by adults who act as if they're talking to other adults and use moderate or even monotonous voices and faces. At the same time, babies are likely to avert their eyes and stop paying attention to adults whose faces are depressed and unresponsive. All in all, young babies seem to find it interesting and fun to look at adults who seem to be enjoying themselves, and boring or even painful to look at adults who seem sad---- perhaps the beginning of emotional empathy. (Curiously, young babies do not seem to recognize or respond in any special way to adult anger.)

As babies get to be closer to a year of age, they become more and more interested in adult facial expressions, especially in unfamiliar situations. They "check out" adult expressions as they try to assess new situations or people. The babies are interested in seeing whether adults are happy or interested in something or someone unfamiliar, but they are especially interested and attentive if the adults look frightened, and will back away from an object if a familiar adult's face shows fear when looking at it. The adult's anxiety and distress have much more immediate effects on the young child's attitude than punishment could have. Here again is a possible factor in the development of morality, as fear is an uncomfortable emotion, and attention to others' fears is an aspect of moral decision-making. But how confusing it must be for babies if a parent looks or acts as if afraid of the baby, as seems to be the case in so-called disorganized attachment.

Most toddlers are clearly concerned about others' needs and wishes, but are ambivalent and changeable about behavior toward people and animals. Looking at some very old notes about one of my children the other day, I noticed that he had on one day pretended elaborate care of his teddy bear, saying "oh poor poor bear!" and on the next day persisted in putting his foot in my face, frowning and saying "hit!" (as a threat) when I stopped him. Kindness and a high level of morality are not the only options for young children, however empathic they may be; they do need to learn about "right and wrong", but that learning is probably accomplished through imitation over many years of growing up, not through punishment.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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