The ability to discern right from wrong and consciously choose positive behaviors and actions is the crux of morality, advises social worker Angela Oswalt, with the Betty Hardwick Center, a mental health center in Texas. The morals of parents and of the immediate family have a profound effect on a child’s behavior.
Parental example is usually the first exposure a young child has to the parents' beliefs and morals, states psychologist and author Michele Borba. In fact, the power of this example is strongest for child influence during the first six years of life, counsels pediatrician and author William Sears. During this time, a child views the parents as undisputed experts on virtually everything, and the child watches every day to receive morality lessons on proper conduct.
When parents discuss and examine emotions with a child, the child learns important information about feelings. Initially, a child needs parents to identify feelings when they arise by naming them. Parents can teach children that all feelings are natural and normal. Placing boundaries on how children express feelings is the beginning of moral development, according to the Family Education website. For example, it’s understandable to feel frustrated about another child snatching a toy, but it’s unacceptable to hurt someone else when feeling frustrated.
From the preschool age and onward, it’s appropriate for parents to begin teaching and encouraging empathy. Empathy enables a child to understand how someone else feels and adjust actions to treat others the way she would want to be treated. Empathy enables children to develop pro-social behavior -- voluntary actions initiated with the primary goal of helping someone else.
Initially, children display moral behavior to please parents or to avoid punishment, according to the Family Education website. Slowly, however, moral behavior progresses away from external motivation and the child internalizes the morals. The internalization of morals means that the child exhibits morals because of a desire to make positive choices.
With the arrival of adolescence, it’s normal for a child to begin questioning parental values and morals as the child makes decisions about personal beliefs. Adolescents also tend to allow emotions to lead behaviors. Even while teens engage in the necessary evaluation of morals and beliefs, parents can remain a solid and steadfast source of influence by staying connected positively with teens. A teen will eventually exit this phase with permanent morals in place that will guide thought processes and actions.