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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices


How do children learn what is right and wrong?


  • Children do what they see, more than what you say. It is important for you to provide a good model for your child to follow.
  • Children pass through different stages of moral development beginning in early childhood and advancing through adulthood.
  • Very young children do not really understand the concept of right and wrong. For them, what is "good" is what they like and what is "bad" is what they don't like. Therefore, it is important for adults to provide controls and limits for them. This is especially true for children who have no words to tell themselves, "No, don't pick the flowers."
  • At about age 4 or 5, children begin to label or identify things that are "good" and "bad." They can talk about them, but the true understanding is still outside of their own feeling. Children of this age follow rules only because they are told to do so. That is why it is very important for adults to provide consistent and gentle guidance. As a child uses words to describe self-controlling behaviors, such as "No. No. Don't touch," they begin to internalize, or understand, what those words mean.
  • By age 7 or 8, children's understanding of right and wrong seems to be based more on fear of being punished. For example, a child might feel that the reason people do not steal is that they will be caught by the police. Generally, children still have not developed true moral values. Again, it is important for adults to help children understand what is right and wrong, and why.
  • By age 9, children are beginning to understand the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. This is the beginning of a true understanding of right and wrong, of guilt and values.
  • Help children develop self-discipline during the pre-school years through a lot of adult help.
  • Remind your pre-school child of the rules beforehand.
  • If your child continues to break a rule, use a problem-solving approach in which the child helps decide what is the best way to keep from breaking the rule. A critical aspect of self-discipline is a sense of personal responsibility.
  • Remember that all young children want to do the right thing and gain approval of their parents. Help them know what that is so that they feel good about themselves.

 

As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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