Teaching Kids to Be Moral Before They Understand Why

While your young toddler won’t be able to comprehend WHY certain behaviors are not nice, that doesn’t mean he is too young to be required to be nice. Read all about actions preceding beliefs in this post.

Toddler on the slide at the playground

Many people hesitate to expect moral behavior from their child until the child can “understand why.” That is not the path you want to follow. You want to expect moral behavior before your little one even knows why it is right or wrong.

Reasons to Expect Ethical Behavior From a Young Age

There are many reasons to expect moral behavior from a young age.

For one thing, you are not going to know for sure when your child understands morals. By the time you realize he understands, you will have lost valuable time in teaching this lesson.

Another reason you don’t want to wait is that most children really don’t understand morals until around age three. Some get things sooner and some a bit later, but three is about average.

You don’t wait until your child is three years old to do things like start expecting him to share, say please and thank you, and not hit.

>>>Read: How To Teach Children to Share

What Age Can You Expect Right Behavior

Training is much, much, much easier from an early age. So when do you start to teach moral behavior?

From the very beginning.

From the moment your child starts to exercise a will, typically somewhere around 5-7 months old, you start to teach correct behavior.

Actions precede understanding.

>>>Read: Discipline Foundations for Your Baby

Does an 18 month old understand the merits of sharing? Absolutely not. Most 18 month olds are furious at the suggestion of sharing :). That is totally normal.

Does that mean we step back and say, “Oh. Isn’t she cute. She just doesn’t understand that it isn’t nice to take Bobby’s toys. Some day she will know that.”

Sure, someday she will. But if you wait until that day, do you think you are going to have a picturesque scene where you say to your 3.5 year old, “Sweetie, it really isn’t nice to take Bobby’s toys from him. It makes him very sad. See how sad he is?” to which she will reply, “Oh dear mother! I have been remiss all this time! I have been so selfish in taking his toys away. I hope he will forgive me!”

Um, no.

She will throw an even bigger fit at 3.5 than she did at 1.5. If you think an 18 month old can throw a fit, wait until your child gets older.

The time to start teaching moral behavior is the moment your child chooses not to display it.

This is what the wise series refers to as “habits of the heart.” The child doesn’t know why she shouldn’t hit, take toys, or scream in anger every time she doesn’t get her way, but she knows her parents expect it of her.

Sure, she messes up quite often. She needs frequent reminders in the right way to behave. She isn’t perfect about it all. But that is cause for training, not cause for waiting.

As she gets older, she will need fewer reminders to behave ethically. She will start to get this strange feeling of happiness when she is nice to others, and she recognizes that.

Her pattern will change from doing what is right because she doesn’t want to be punished in some way to doing what is right because she loves others and hopefully because she loves God if you have taught her that.

Please believe me when I tell you it is so much easier to train from the beginning.

Start as you mean to go on.

I have observed young toddlers who have been taught right from a young age and those who haven’t.. I am able to watch these children often. 

I am amazed to see the level of self-control present in these little ones who have been taught good and right behavior versus those who haven’t.

The other day I watched my friend’s 18 month old girl stop herself from throwing a ball in the house after her mom explained to her not to. Her arm went back it started to come forward….and she stopped. Her little arm literally trembled.

She looked at the ball and I watched in an instant this little internal struggle with herself as she wrestled with the thrill of throwing the ball and the knowledge that her mom had told her not to.

Her obedient side won. What a sweet gift these parents give their children!

>>>Read: A Simple Method for Teaching Positive Behavior

Start Early, But Don’t Expect Perfection

Starting early doesn’t mean your children will be 100% perfect all the time. No way. They will mess up every day, just like you do.

That is the way life goes.

But it means that when it comes time to teach them why they are kind and why they need to show love to others, their brain can focus on that rather than controlling those selfish desires.

By the time they are old enough to really understand why, they will have already worked on the ethical behavior for 2.5 years by that point.

Actions precede beliefs.

Teaching Self-Mastery is a Gift

The ability to master self is a great gift. Think of all the things you work to master each day. Do you have to master yourself to get up on time or go to bed on time?

Do you have the self-control to eat right?

Do you hold your tongue and speak only nice words? Do you talk behind people’s backs? Are you kind online?

Do you get the physical exercise you know your body needs to be healthy?

These are all simply self-mastery issues that adults struggle with regularly.

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It Isn’t Too Late To Start Teaching Ethics

Now, a word to you parents who are reading this thinking, “Oh no! I haven’t started teaching these things early enough and now I have messed up my child for life!”

You haven’t.

It is never too late to teach your child.

Is it harder to teach these things if you start at 21 months instead of 7 months? Yes. Does that mean it can’t be done? Absolutely not! It is never too late.

Don’t spend time worrying about your should’ves behind you and focus on your shoulds before you.


The take home message today? It is possible to train actions before the child is able to fully comprehend the reason behind the actions.

The best time to start to train these actions is as soon as your child does the actions on her own, which ends up being around 5-7 months.

However, it is never too late to start, and no matter when you start, your child will be no more perfect than you are.

Whew! Isn’t being a parent a tough job!


This post originally appeared on this blog in May 2010

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