Do Babies Know Right from Wrong?

It’s natural to look at your tiny baby and wonder what he or she is thinking, especially in those first few months when language development hasn’t really begun on any noticeable level. (Keep in mind that while your newborn may not appear to comprehend much of what you tell her yet, she hears everything you’re saying and may begin babbling in imitation of Mommy and Daddy’s speech patterns in just a few short months!) As your child grows, you’ll find it remarkable how quickly she adapts to conversations and social conventions. And, as she transitions from infancy to her early toddler years, you may wonder whether she’s developed a basic sense of right and wrong. Are we born “good” (or, in some cases, not so good), or is it all a matter of how we’re socialized?

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Do Babies Know Right from Wrong?

Older babies and toddlers can certainly learn to understand and (sometimes!) respect simple commands from adults like “no” (e.g. “NO, don’t go near the stove!” or “NO, don’t pull the dog’s tail”), but do they really understand why we have so many rules? Leading child development experts, like the faculty of the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, believe that babies can, in fact, distinguish right from wrong. Drs. Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn, for example, believe that when we are born, we are hard-wired to discern moral and immoral behaviors. Even babies who haven’t yet developed advanced language skills are able to identify the “good guys” and “bad guys” in simple puppet shows. Evidence supports the idea that very young children are inclined to reward what they perceive as moral, helpful behavior and are capable of experiencing guilt when their own actions are hurtful to others.

What Does This Mean for Your Baby?

It’s very likely that you began asking the big questions—“How can I help my son (or daughter) to grow up to be a good person?”—before your baby was even born. After all, it’s a whole new world of responsibility raising a child and helping him to navigate a complex world. You’ll certainly teach him to say “please” and “thank you” as soon as he’s old enough to start pointing to his rattle and lovey blanket, and you’ll carefully monitor his interactions with other children on the playground and at library story hour. You’ll also encourage him to play nicely and share toys with siblings, friends, and classmates. But, armed with the knowledge that your little guy or gal really does have an age-appropriate grasp on what’s right and wrong, what other specific steps can you take to raise a thoughtful, caring child?

How to Raise a Caring Child

The Graduate School of Education at Harvard University has launched the Making Caring Common Project, with the goal of helping parents and other caretakers, educators, and members of the community to raise children who are empathetic, kind, and willing to take action to make their world a better place. They’ve put together a great list of tips for raising caring children from the time they’re very young—perfect for the parents of babies and young toddlers who want to get a jump-start on teaching their kids how to be great young people. Like the research team at Yale, these professionals fully believe that young children develop a sense of “right” very early on—but that they also need careful guidance from their parents and other trusted adults in their lives to grow into thoughtful, compassionate, concerned young citizens. We’ll take you through some of their most important points of advice here.

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Build a close and loving relationship with each of your children.

It’s pretty simple: kids learn how to treat other people from the way you treat them. The Harvard team recommends making room in your schedule to spend quality time with your children, which should include meaningful conversation about what’s going on in their lives and how they’re feeling about it.

Lead kids by example.

Your children learn so much from you from the time they’re born: how to eat and drink, how to get dressed and undressed, how to make sense of the world around them. Give them ample opportunities to see you and your partner acting as caring, considerate adults, and they’ll begin to model that behavior.

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Emphasize to your children that other people’s needs and feelings are important, too.

Your baby is the center of your world, and while she’s still a toddler and young child, she’ll typically have the idea that life is all about her. The goal is to gently encourage her to balance her emotions and desires with her concern for those of the people around her: her siblings, her friends, and you, of course!

How do you get to be really good at anything?

You practice, of course! Help your child to seize on opportunities to be kind, like by encouraging her to say “Thank you!” when one of her siblings or friends hands her a favorite toy or to help a shy neighborhood playmate who has been left out of a group activity feel more included.

Provide a healthy dose of age-appropriate perspective on the challenges other people, including peers, face.

You might point out that some families in your area are struggling to put together a nice Thanksgiving meal or presents under the Christmas tree this year and talk to your children about how you might brighten their lives just a little. If a neighborhood friend is having trouble getting along in school, help your child to be encouraging and a good listener.

Give children the opportunity to take action.

When your child has determined what “the right thing to do” is, reinforce it by allowing her to follow through with it, whether it’s by inviting the new kid in class over to play or by performing an act of community service or long-distance charity, like donating some of her birthday money to a worthy cause. Let her know you’re always there to help her work through her specific questions about doing the right thing.

Help your children learn to manage their feelings.

We can’t fully control our emotions, but we can change how we react to them. Encourage your child to deal with his or her negative feelings calmly and constructively, without throwing a tantrum or starting a quarrel.

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Am I Up to the Task?

Does all of this sound a bit overwhelming? The good news is that you and your children will have many opportunities to practice doing the right thing together in the coming years, and you’ll be amazed at how selfless and considerate young people can be. And when they don’t get it quite right, remember that throughout our lives, we all learn some of our most important lessons by taking risks and making mistakes. And, believe it or not, just thinking about all this means you’re already on the right track to raising a great kid (or two, or more!) The fact that you love your baby and want him to grow up to be a caring, helpful, and compassionate person means your little one is in wonderful hands.

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