My sister-in-law bought me a t-shirt that says “be a good human.” Every time I wear it, people comment on the advice. As a parent, I want to raise ‘good humans,’ but to do that, I need to know where to start. Centuries of philosophers, scientists, and religious scholars have provided theories of innate morality. Some perspectives suggest that children are selfish, wild, maybe even bad, and therefore the role of adults is to teach them what is right and wrong. Other theories suggest that children are born innocent and pure; it is the world around them that is corruptive. Current research points to something much more nuanced.
Developmental psychologist Paul Bloom studies the morality of babies. He notes that humans have an innate sense of morality from almost birth. They seem able to tell the difference between acts of kind and cruel behavior even before they can form an intent to be good or evil.
- They have an innate sense of fairness (Very young children choose to interact with individuals who behave fairly, rather than those who are unfair in their dealings with others).
- They are empathetic to other people’s suffering. (Babies get upset when they hear others crying).
- They can begin acting in ways that express their morality (3-4-year-olds will often distribute things evenly, so everyone gets the same amount).
This does not mean that young children always know the right thing to do or that their immature ability to self-regulate will allow them to do it. They still need others to teach them how to be reliably moral people.
Bloom’s research suggests that developing moral thinking in young children is a three-step process.
- They have to recognize what is right and wrong. Children have an innate sense of rudimentary morality, but many aspects of morality are based on the culture and context of where one lives and what one believes. If your family values teamwork, then model helping each other out and apologizing when someone forgets to do their part. If your family values personal responsibility, then model how to take care of yourself and your things, putting dirty clothes in the laundry hamper or putting one’s toothbrush back where it belongs, etc.
- They have to know how to make the situation better. If your family values taking care of the environment, then modeling picking up trash when you go to the playground, or having your child help sort your recyclables makes the connection between belief and action. Similarly, if your family values generosity, then help your child see places where they can share a toy or allow others to use an item first.
- They have to want to make it better. If your family values sharing then you can make sharing a game, or offer words of encouragement when you see that behavior displayed. If your family values eliminating hunger, you could allow your child to pick out the meal you intend to make or help with the grocery shopping. This encourages investment in the outcome, which is another form of motivation.
Our ethical choices get more complicated as we age. Helping your children develop moral thinking during their early childhood establishes a foundation for future ethical decision making.