Moral Development of Toddlers 2 to 3 Years Old

By Peg Ehlen
Your toddler may face moral dilemmas as he interacts with others.
Your toddler may face moral dilemmas as he interacts with others.

Your toddler grabs a ball from another toddler, who instantly screams. Sternly, you face your little one, saying, "No! Give the ball back to Noah." Sadly relinquishing the ball to its rightful owner, your toddler learns an early lesson about ethical behavior. In fact, the first glimmer of moral development may begin even before toddlerhood, according to Paul Bloom, psychology professor at Yale. The lessons that your toddler learns now can influence his later moral development.

Following Rules

Imagine leaving your toddler's favorite candy on the coffee table and asking him not to eat it while you momentarily leave the room to answer the doorbell. Your toddler's response to this temptation could reveal how well he has internalized your rules. You might marvel if the candy remained untouched! In an experiment with toddlers published in “Developmental Psychology," Kochanska, et al., observed the long-term development of 2 year olds who complied with rules while out of their parents' view. By the age of 5 1/2, these former toddlers considered themselves "good" children and had few social problems at school age.

Developing Empathy

As you trip over a toy and land on the floor, your toddler tries to understand what happened. Hearing your groans, he looks concerned, puts his hand on your leg and says, "Boo boo?" This show of concern could foretell future moral development. Research suggests that your toddler can respond with empathy -- particularly to you, his primary caregiver. Toddlers who demonstrate strong sympathetic reactions often adapt well when they later enter the school environment.

Helping Others

Your toddler sees you struggling to carry six plastic bags of groceries in one hand while holding his hand in the other. As you enter your home, you drop two of the bags. Your little one tries to help by picking up the bags. This unprompted behavior suggests that your toddler has the ability to demonstrate unselfish behavior by helping someone -- even a stranger -- who struggles with a task.

Protesting Injustice

Picture your little girl crying because someone took her favorite dolly. At age 2, she may feel angry about this injustice to herself, but would she worry about injustice to others? In the “British Journal of Developmental Psychology,” researchers Vaish, et al., used puppet experiments to explore this possibility. In some experiments, the toddler and two puppets drew pictures or played with clay. When one puppet left the scene, the other puppet tore the drawing or destroyed the clay figure. Although the 2 year olds remarked that something was broken, they did not protest against the injustice or engage in tattling behaviors with the victim. In contrast, 3 year olds protested the actions of the bad puppet, tattled about this puppet's wrongdoings to the victimized puppet and expressed sadness over the destruction of the art work. As your toddler turns 3, she may raise more cries against injustice, demonstrating her continuing moral development.

About the Author

With dual degrees in English and learning disabilities, Peg Ehlen has been a full-time English professor most of her life. In addition, she has directed disability services for post-secondary students. Her publications reflect her experience in these fields and her knowledge of psychology, parenting and juvenile diabetes.