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.

Teaching kids to be moral pinnable image

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

Teaching kids to behave ethically pinnable images

6 thoughts on “Teaching Kids to Be Moral Before They Understand Why”

  1. I truly enjoyed your blog, and everything you said it is so true. Us as parents, should never wait to teach our kids and show them what is right and what is wrong. Just like you said, you should teach them as soon as they know it is wrong and stay consistent with your teaching. Kids today are so smart and experts are now saying that they can learn as of 1 month old. Imagine if you wait until YOU think they will learn forget it when they grow up you are going to have a problem child. Great blog!!

  2. I know I've said it before, but goodness, I love your blog. This is my motto (thx to you): Start as you mean to go on. SO true. I have to say, I have twin 20-month olds, and they share and are sweet and loving to each other (not all the time, but a lot of the time) and I do think it's because of our coaching and expectations. And diligence. Always diligent. I do have a question about something I've struggled with, and perhaps it's just a phase, but I cannot get my kids to stop tipping their cups upside down and shaking milk out. They also drop food on the floor. Of course we correct them constantly and they KNOW it is wrong, but yet, they still do it. Any suggestions beyond what we're doing? We do take food/drink away after warning them that this will be the repurcussion. TIA.

  3. Thank you for this post. Everything you said is very very true. I also look at moral training like this: "Our kids are watching us and what we ARE shouts louder than anything we can SAY." The best way to teach 'moral training' is to show them from the begining (by example)

  4. Tracy,It is likely a phase. An idea would be to just take it away the first time. They are old enough to be able to remember rules from meal to meal. If you really feel like you want a warning at each meal, you could remind them before they ever get the cup."Here is your milk. Now, remember, we don't shake our milk out. If you do, you will lose it. Say Yes Mommy."Then just take it when they shake it out. Remain calm and empathetic.Also, an idea is to give them cups full of water in the tub. This is new and interesting, and if you can get it so it isn't so new and interesting, they should stop at the table.I would always say, "We don't spit at the table. But you can spit in the tub." So my kids would spit and spit in the tub but not at the table. They are smart enough to realize things are okay in certain situation and not others.

  5. I totally agree Danielle. I think it was Emmerson who said, "What you are doing speaks so loudly I cannot here your words" or something like that.


Leave a Comment