Why the Moral Development of Toddlers Matters for All of Us

by Amy Webb

Research on moral development in toddlers offers us amazing insight
into how perceptive young children really are . . .
and what it means for our social interactions.

We, as parents, all want to encourage the moral development of our children. From a young age, we teach our children to help other people and share their toys. Of course, for very young children, this is often a challenge because they simply lack the cognitive development to be able to understand events from another person’s perspective. Developing this skill is a key aspect of toddler development.

In child psychology, this skill of understanding another person’s perspective is called Theory of Mind. (If you’ve never seen the experiment used to “test” this skill, it’s quite fun to watch.)

Although moral development in toddlers is still in its earliest stages, research is showing us that they do have more understanding than we might expect. This research reveals that toddlers as young as 3 years old are quite developed and discriminating in their understanding of others’ intentions and their desire to help (or not help) other people.

A recent study in Germany considered toddlers’ understanding of others’ intentions and their subsequent helpful actions towards them. Here’s what they did: Children watched several scenarios where adult actors played various roles: helpfulness (taping together a drawing torn by someone else), harmfulness (purposely tearing another person’s drawing), intention to harm (trying to tear another’s drawing but not succeeding), and accidental harmfulness (accidentally tearing another person’s drawing).

The children then interacted with the adults in playing a game. The children’s helpfulness toward the adults was gauged by whether or not they gave the adult a missing game piece.

As you might expect, children were helpful to those adults who showed helpfulness in the prior scenario and were not helpful to those adults who were harmful (tearing the drawing). More interestingly, however, was the fact that children were also helpful to those adults who were only accidentally harmful. The children also showed less helpfulness to those adults who had the intention to be harmful in the previous scenario (trying but not succeeding to tear the drawing).

This clearly implies that children as young as 3 can not only differentiate between helpful and harmful actions, but can also distinguish others’ intentions. This may not seem like a big milestone on the surface, but when you think about it, understanding someone else’s intentions is a very important skill as a human being. 

Why is Moral Development Important?

Social interaction is one of the main ways we as humans advance our civilization. Working and cooperating with others is not only a good moral skill, it is crucial to our survival at the most basic level. We don’t often think of this in our high-tech society, but working with other people is a basic part of our existence. One key aspect of working with other people is understanding their intentions toward us and others.

Humans’ social interaction can be very complex and subtle. It’s amazing that children as young as 3 can understand this complex world and be very savvy about who has good and bad intentions.

The Beginnings of Empathy

Although it’s true that toddlers have to reach a certain level of cognitive development in order to understand the perspectives and feelings of others, there are things we can do to help foster these skills.

  1. Don’t be afraid to discuss emotions. In generations past, many parents shied away from discussions of “touchy-feely” topics like emotions. Today, we know that the more we discuss how others may be feeling, the more our kids are likely to gain that crucial skill of empathy.
  2. Set limits on behavior, not emotions.The distinction between setting boundaries on behavior and punishing emotions is sometimes a subtle one but is a hallmark of positive parenting. Positive parenting focuses on limiting harmful behavior (e.g., hitting, calling names) but allowing for emotional expression (e.g., crying, sadness). These two things often become a tangled mess in the heat of the moment, but the more we can guide and teach our kids to cope with big emotions in healthy ways, the better their emotional skills will become.

On a side note, this is important for us parents to understand, as well. Our toddlers are adept at understanding our actions. If they think we have good intentions toward them (which hopefully all parents do!), they will be more likely to comply with our requests, too.

Amy Webb is a self-described “child development research nerd.” She, her husband, and their two boys, age 6 and 10, live near Denver, Colorado. Find more of her writing on her blog at thoughtfulparent.com.