Learning Right From Wrong

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Oct 22, 2010

Editors' Comment

Each generation believes they are facing new challenges in raising responsible children. As we start the 21st century, the world is a different place than it was even ten years ago and is sure to continue to change. With change come both challenges and opportunities. No challenge is more important than raising our children to become adults with sound values and a sense of responsibility to themselves, their families, and their community. In this issue of the NYU Child Study Center Letter, we review the developmental processes-the moral and cognitive reasoning along with conscience and empathy- which enable children to distinguish right from wrong. Knowledge of what's typical at different ages helps adults understand the meaning of children's decisions in situations which present moral dilemmas. We also discuss how parenting styles and attitudes affect their children's values. According to research, parents who are warm and communicative with their children, starting at an early age, while still maintaining control in the form of limits, raise children who are more self-respecting, more socially competent, and deal more effectively with problems. As children grow, the parents who are open to discussions of tough issues such as aggression, violence, sexual activity, and substance abuse let their children know that they care about them and exert a powerful influence in their lives. The final section of this CSC Letter presents some strategies to help parents prepare their children to follow a steady path in changing times. -- HSK/AG


Aretha, age 4, pocketed a candy bar that appealed to her when she was in a store with her mother.

Sidney, age 10, preparing for a math test, wrote some formulas on his hand to refer to.

Alex, age 15, was late in handing in a science paper, so he found some information on the internet and submitted it as his own.

How do children come to know the rules of their family and their community and learn what's fair, just and right? The process starts at an early age, and several strands of development are intertwined- children need to comprehend what's expected of them, to want approval and to care about others. It's a matter of both mind and emotions. Children gradually develop the cognitive and emotional capacities that form the basis of knowing and feeling what's right and what's wrong and then acting in accordance with that knowledge. And they need caring adults to help them. Taking a candy bar, cheating on a test, and using someone else's ideas have different meanings at different ages. The 4-year-old who takes a candy bar doesn't yet understand the idea of private property; the 10-year-old who cheats on a test knows he shouldn't do it, but thinks it's okay because others do it; the 15-year-old, however, when faced with ambiguous moral choices, is intellectually aware of the ethical issues involved in submitting someone else's work as his own.

The Toddler and Preschool Years

Young children think about good/ bad and right/wrong in terms of personal consequences, not in moral terms. When 4-year-old Aretha took a candy bar in the supermarket, she found out it was wrong because her mother told her to put the candy bar back and not to do it again. She's not likely to repeat the behavior because she wants to please her mother and she doesn't want to be punished.

Preschoolers consider rules sacred and inflexible, which makes it difficult for them to distinguish between intent and behavior. In terms of punishment, preschool- age children judge actions by the damage done; the more the damage the more serious the crime. For example, they consider breaking four dishes while helping to clean up a more serious crime than breaking one dish deliberately. They don't yet understand that intention matters; that breaking something on purpose is different than breaking something by accident. So they may not understand the logic of punishment. By the age of seven, however, most children are able to consider intention as a factor in judging the seriousness of an incident.

Empathy, or feeling for the emotions of others is key to developing a sense of right and wrong; it emerges at an early age and needs to be nurtured in a caring environment. Even babies cry when they hear other babies cry, and toddlers respond to distress in other children-verbally as well as nonverbally-by offering a hug or other physical sign of concern. Young children come to recognize that there are standards of acceptable behavior and feel guilty if they violate them. Although they are mostly concerned with their own interests, young children also understand ideas about fairness, that all children should get equal amounts of cookies and should take turns, for example.

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