NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665


October 22, 1998

Moral Development Begins in Early Years; Parents a Major Influence

Most children ages 5 or 6 have developed the basic components of conscience, a sense of guilt, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and the capability to be empathetic. But none of these elements of a child's moral development will become fully functional for years.

This in-between period is the ideal time for laying a solid moral foundation, says an educator at North Dakota State University. And what group of adults is best suited for that job? Parents, the first moral teachers and role models young children have.

"At this early age, parents have an opportunity to begin teaching a respect for life and for others," says Helen Danielson, extension child development specialist at North Dakota State University. "This teaching occurs as parents explain and reason with their children. It is through this process that you pass on your morals and beliefs."

Before beginning this teaching process, parents need to understand why young children behave as they sometimes do. For instance, if a young boy takes candy or perhaps even some money without permission, it may be because he can't help himself—because the desires of young children quite often are more powerful than their self-control.

When pressed by his parents about why he took what he did, this same boy may deny that he took it, but his intent may not be to distort reality, says Danielson. In fact, the lie actually may be the boy's "wish," an expression of how he would have liked to have behaved, now that he benefits from hindsight.

Obviously, this learning process demands patience from adults, and some parents may need to assess their disciplining skills because research shows that only positive discipline will promote moral development.

"Parents who discipline with fear or punishment may get their children to mind, but those children won't be internally motivated to do the right thing," explains Danielson. "Internal motivation. Self-discipline. Self-control. That's what we should be trying to build."

Because a 5- or 6-year-old's conscience is still developing, she may sometimes experience a level of guilt that is out of proportion to her misdeed. At the other extreme is the child who refuses to take any responsibility for his actions. Instead, he may blame someone else or even an imaginary friend. Danielson says children at this age don't understand that they have options—that they could have acted differently. So using positive discipline, based on explanations and not demands, is especially important when it comes to instilling a healthy sense of right and wrong in children.

As they approach school age, children begin to think and reason about moral issues such as right and wrong or fair and unfair. Because they believe the world is just, children this age think that if something bad happens to them, they must have done something to deserve it, Danielson says.

This type of either-or attitude can set children up for frustration and disappointment. When parents are affectionate in their response and show respect for their child's feelings, they are helping build empathy in the child.

"Children want to please their parents, so it's the behavior parents are role modeling that becomes so important," Danielson says.

Preschoolers also have difficulty distinguishing between what they do deliberately and what happens by accident. For example, a preschooler may become angry when a younger sibling unintentionally breaks a favorite toy. Or, the older child may try to explain away the anger by saying, "It was an accident."

Parents can point out how the younger child feels and offer to help the older child fix the toy. By doing so, they are being both considerate and helpful, two behaviors that are key to moral development.

"Moral development involves acting morally, not just avoiding wrongdoing," Danielson concludes. "So, parents should respond to their child's sharing and other acts of kindness too. Think of it as catching them being good."

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Source: Helen Danielson (701) 231-8289

Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136