Moral development is essentially about learning the difference between right and wrong, and understanding how to make the right choices. In early childhood, moral development doesn’t form independently. It is the combination of experiences, the environment, and the physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills your child learns as he grows.
Toddlers are concerned about the needs and rights of others, but tend to be indecisive and unpredictable in their behavior toward those needs. For example, your toddler might be gentle and sweet with you one day, and defiant or disagreeable the next. According to Jean Mercer, a developmental psychologist writing for Psychology Today, this changeable behavior is normal. While your toddler might be empathetic, he is still learning right and wrong, which takes many years of development and learning through imitation and experience.
Independence and Conflict
According to Ask Dr. Sears, children develop a sense of otherness by 18 months of age. As your toddler reaches two years of age, he further develops the awareness that others share his world and have needs and rights just like he does. Children at this stage of moral development begin to understand that there are rules that must be followed, but instead of automatically obeying, most become frustrated because they do not yet have the ability to judge something as right or wrong. Instead, your child knows only that he must do what he is told, and this expectation conflicts with his natural drive for independence. For example, a two-year-old that hits does not yet understand that he’s hurting the other person. He will learn that it is wrong when his parents tell him it is or because he is punished for it.
Understanding Rules and Consequences
By three years of age, children begin to internalize family values, or what is important to their family, and they are less frustrated about following the rules. Your child is beginning to learn and understand the roles of child and adult at this age, and can recognize consequences and understand what behaviors will lead to those consequences. According to the Betty Hardwick Center, instead of feeling bad only when she is punished, your child will begin to feel bad because she hurt someone’s feelings or made them angry, because her morality is becoming empathy-based.
Your toddler learns the basic concept of good and bad behavior from you, and this knowledge forms the foundation for more complex morality later on. According to the Betty Hardwick Center, morality is not automatically in place. It is primarily developed through external factors, such as family and societal values, modeling by adults and peers, religious beliefs, your parenting practices, and observation and imitation of your actions. For example, if your child sees you being helpful to someone else, she is more likely to try to be helpful as well. How you discipline your child is also important. Establish clear rules and fair consequences for bad behavior. For example, if your toddler receives the same consequence every time she takes her brother’s toys, she will learn that taking things from others is wrong all of the time. If your toddler receives fair and consistent consequences for breaking a rule, she will learn to connect her decisions or actions with consequences, and this puts her on the right path for moral behavior.