Module 4: Promoting Mental Health in Early Childhood

SItting the CornerA Moral Sense

Developing Social Awareness

Children typically master rules by testing them and experiencing guilt for breaking them; feeling pride and receiving praise for following rules; and developing an understanding of the moral concepts that justify the rules that govern behavior.

Moral development provides a framework of principled behavior for relating to others. Children learn the do’s of relating to others by observing and experiencing caring interactions. They learn the don’ts of relating to others by being told what is appropriate behavior, by observing and receiving feedback on inappropriate behavior, and by feeling bad for hurting others.

Questions to Ask

  • How are you and your partner managing your child’s behavior?
  • How does he act around family members? Around other children?
  • Do you have any questions about what your child should be allowed to do?
  • How do you set clear and specific limits for your child?
  • How are you dealing with disciplining him?

Provider Tips

  • Encourage parents to talk with their child about their own moral decision-making processes in terms the child can understand.
  • Explain that using small, immediate consequences that relate to problem behavior and explaining why it is important to follow a particular rule helps to increase their child’s understanding of rules.
  • Using the guidance listed below, suggest ways that parents can help their child to develop empathy and a moral sense.

Guidance for Parents

  • Your child can learn to care about the feelings and needs of others through your good example. When you help someone in need, donate to charity, or do chores for an elderly or sick neighbor, you are teaching your child compassion and empathy for others. Try to involve him as much as possible in acts of kindness and concern.
  • Teach your child to care about the feelings of others by explaining another person’s point of view in terms that he can understand. You might ask him to put himself in “someone else’s shoes” by asking questions such as:
    • How would you feel if that happened to you?
    • Why do you think the little girl is crying?
    • Why do you think the puppy is wagging his tail?
  • When your child is about 4 years old, you can help him to see another’s point of view by role-playing with him. Your child will enjoy pretending to be someone else or acting out a specific “scene” or situation. You can also use hand puppets, stuffed animals, or dolls as part of the role-play.
  • Give your child opportunities to develop moral responsibility, kindness, and helpfulness at home. Feeding pets, assisting with meals, bringing in the mail, helping to care for a younger sibling, and sharing with others are just a few of the ways he can help out and learn at the same time.
  • Continue to set reasonable limits for your child. Explain why it is important to follow a particular rule and let him know what the consequences are for breaking the rule. Don’t be surprised if he tries to “test” the rules to see what will happen. This is normal at his age. Be consistent in your reactions and he will learn what is expected of him.
  • Don’t shame, humiliate, or label your child for normal rule-testing behavior. Briefly tell him what he did wrong and follow-up with small consequences at once. Reassure him once negative behavior has stopped. Remember to praise him whenever he cooperates, follows the rules, and cares for others.
Resource for Families

Caring: It's Not a Lesson, It's a Way of Life

Moral Development and Moral Education: An Overview

Coles R. 1997. The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to raise a moral child. Random House, New York.

Damon W. 1990. The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth. New York, NY: Free Press.

Kohlberg L. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development. Harper and Row, New York.


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