Question: “I have a 3 month old baby. I often wonder if, are infants’ born with an innate sense of morality. What do you think?”
One of RIE’s® defining ideas is that infants are capable, curious, intelligent people from day one, who are eager to understand the world around them. They are whole people. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot to learn. Morality, or the “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” (Oxford English Dictionary) is a social construct. Since young infants haven’t had a lot of social engagement yet they haven’t had a chance to learn the rules. So the next question is when and how do people learn a society’s morals? This is where it gets interesting and has some practical applications to parenting young children.
The mores of a society can be quite complex and I would argue that there are many of us who still struggle with these complexities of morality as adults. I would also venture to say that infants begin to learn right from wrong on day one. How? By watching us. The primary way children learn about their society is by modeling after their parents/caregivers. Since 70% of brain development happens in the first 3 years of life and 90% by age 5 these first years are undoubtedly formative in a person’s development of their sense of morality. So we have to ask ourselves, who is modeling moral behavior for our children and do we agree with the morality on display? For example, how much TV or Video game time is my 5 year old getting, and do I agree with the ethics being shown? Another factor to take in to consideration is what social situations is my child involved in on a regular basis, are these situations appropriate for my child’s development, who is moderating the social situation and how? The selection of who is allowed to care for our children in the early years is one of the most important decisions we make.
Since our society’s moral fabric is quite complex, let’s just pick one moral construct as an example. Let’s look at sharing. I am the Lead Teacher and Toddler Center Coordinator at a preschool where I see children working out the rights and wrongs of social engagement hundreds of times a day. Countless times I see a two year-old become interested in the toy another child is playing with and immediately they try to take it from the other child. It is one of the moral elements in our society that it is proper to share.
So, at this point many adults will intervene with the children and tell the second child to share the toy or choose an arbitrary time for the child’s play with the toy to end and she must give it to the other child. With the best of intentions these adults think they are teaching their children the moral rights and wrongs of their society. However, it is worth a closer look at what the children are probably truly learning.
The moral concept of sharing has several parts to it. First, one must be able to see from the other person’s perspective and recognize that they are interested in the object you possess. It’s useful to understand that the other person has a set of different experiences that inform their desire. Perhaps they love fire trucks and were playing with that truck earlier but were forced to leave it behind when they had to go get a bandaid because they fell and scratched their knee, and are now coming back for it. For the first child to have this kind of understanding is beyond that of a two year old. It is a concept called Theory of Mind. It is the understanding that other people have different experiences and understanding of things than you do. This doesn’t usually happen for children until late threes or early fours. One way to test theory of mind is something you can do at home, if you are curious if your child understands this concept yet. When you are alone in the kitchen with your child say to them, “I have and idea, let’s take all the cookies out of the cookie jar and put them in the freezer.” Then ask “When brother comes in where do you think he will look for the cookies?” If they say the freezer then they don’t quite have theory of mind yet.
The second step to sharing is empathizing with the other person. It is not enough to understand their perspective but we must also recognize their feeling and know that it would make them happy to have what we have and to know what that happiness feels like, and to feel their happiness as our own when we share something with them. That’s a lot. Even though young infants are very attuned to other’s emotions, particularly those of their caregivers, the parts of their brain that process empathy still have a very long way to go. You might notice that your two year-old doesn’t seem to have a social or contagious yawn reaction. By this I mean, when you yawn while your child is sitting in your lap they don’t usually also yawn. Whereas when someone else yawns you almost always do, even if you’re not tired. That’s because social yawning is an empathetic response and the part of the brain that is responsible for that is not yet developed at two years. So sharing for a child under the age of four, true, genuine empathetic sharing, may not yet be possible. Keep in mind it is not like a switch is flipped and on their fourth birthday a child becomes an empathetic person. It is a process of learning that may begin to happen earlier, but will continue to develop for many years.
A third element of understanding that is helpful to have in place when trying to share, is an understanding of fairness. You are more likely to feel compelled to share if you understand the injustice of inequity. If you have four fire trucks and nobody else has any, and if you understand that this is fundamentally unfair, you may feel compelled by your moral compass to share (if Theory of Mind and empathy are already up and running). It’s difficult to know when children understand fairness and, more importantly, when and what compels them to act to remedy an unfair situation. Also, fairness can be pretty complex all on its own. First it helps to understand equity. When things are equal. Children as young as 15 months stare longer at a situation where an adult gives more to one person than to another than they do when resources are evenly distributed. There also seems to be an early, almost primal, understanding of disadvantageous equity allocation, which is when someone gets more than you or something better than you. There is a fabulous video of a capuchin monkey who is given cucumbers for performing the same act as her neighbor monkey who is receiving grapes. She clearly understands that this is not fair and has no qualms about expressing her outrage. But the more complex ideas of fairness like advantageous equity allocation, or when you get more than others or the idea that what is fair may not be what is equal are much later to develop. Indeed some societies don’t see advantageous equity allocation as a bad thing and so a child may never develop a negative moral judgment of it.
Now that we have broken apart the elements that we must understand to share, let’s re-imagine that all too familiar scenario when one child takes a toy from the other and a grown up asks them to share. If the child is not old enough to have achieved the understanding and brain development needed to share. Instead of learning to share the younger child will learn that a bigger person (i.e., the adult) can, and maybe even has the right to, make a smaller person (themselves) give up something they want (the toy) to another person (the other child.) Is this truly the moral judgment we want to teach? If not, what do we do instead? The answer is nothing. We do nothing.
This may be difficult for some people to believe, but most of the time young children will find their own way through this situation. Of course safety is my first concern, so if it looks like one child might be getting frustrated enough to hit, or in any other way try to hurt another child, I will calmly come close and block any attempt with my open hand. I might say “I will not let you hit,” and leave it at that, allowing them the space to work it out. If the children look to me for “help” or if, because of their limited verbal ability, they may be extra frustrated, I will sometimes do what we call “sportscasting.” I will simply say out loud what I see is occurring, without judging or interpreting the behavior. I might say, “I see you both want the truck. Jen is holding the truck and Ann is grabbing for the truck.” I intervene the least amount necessary. It's important during their conflict that, even if the children get upset or frustrated, they be allowed their feelings and that the adult remain calm. For the most part I let them work it out
Let’s take a look at the possible benefits of this tactic. Children become problem solvers. They learn that they are capable of handling conflict themselves and do not need to look to others to solve their problems. As a mother of four I particularly like that my children will work out their own conflicts without expecting me to settle every disagreement. They learn to make decisions about what is important enough to go after with persistence and what simply isn’t worth the effort. You might wonder what happens if my child really wants something and they don’t get it? Then they learn how to work through their disappointment and come out on the other side. They may need to come to us for support and to co-regulate their emotions, which is why it is important for us to remain calm. Why let children experience this disappointment and frustration? Life is full of disappointments and frustrations, and what better time to practice overcoming them than when the stakes are only about toy trucks, and when you have support of your caregiver to help you.
What do we do when the children get older? Through sensitive observation we will see when our children begin to understand the concept that will make sharing, true sharing possible, but even then it is important that they do so because they decided to. And again our modeling of genuine thoughtfulness and kindness and sharing is the very best “teacher” of these things. When children are much older life often presents us with chances to discuss the complexities of sharing. Do we give some of our money to the person on the street corner or do we donate to a particular charity? How do we in our family choose to share?
What about when older children are taking things from younger children? I bring this up because it is one of the rare occasions I might intervene by again using the sportscasting if the younger child is not verbal enough to express herself. I might say, with no judgment or attempt to manipulate the older child’s actions, “I hear you Sam. You want the toy Andy has. Andy when you are done can you let Sam know so she can have a turn.” If the older child is a sibling and is continually taking things from the younger child it probably has a lot more to do with the older child trying to process their feelings about having a younger sibling than it has to do with the toys themselves. We often expect older siblings to have issues when we bring a baby home, but it can be another big adjustment for an older sibling when the younger one becomes big enough to start getting into their stuff. Even here I would caution against overreacting. If you advocate too strongly for the older one to “share” with the younger one, they will feel like you forced them to, and that you chose the baby’s side. To them it’s just another example of how this baby is ruining their life. Also the children will expect to come to you to solve their problems or, in their minds, choose a side. This just adds to the rivalry. If we keep everyone physically safe and up hold the house rules, for example “no name calling,” then they will work it out themselves. Eventually they will not even need you to set the limits of no violence or to enforce the house rules. Those will simply become the parameters within which they work out their conflicts.
This is a rather in-depth look at just one moral construct. So, do we need to pick all of our moral constructs apart? Yes and No. Mostly, again, if the important people in a child’s life are demonstrating good moral behavior and the examples that are set for them are morally positive, I believe they will develop that morality. However, if you keep running into situations where your child just “doesn’t seem to get it,” then it might be worthwhile to sit down and pick it apart—making sure that you know what is developmentally appropriate for your child’s age and that you are looking at things from their perspective as well. Analyzing these challenges will provide a better understanding of what they are learning and how. Then you can make informed and sensitive choices about how to help them.
RIE® Associate BIo: Melanie Snell is a mother of four children. She was lucky enough to find RIE® when her oldest was four months old. She and her husband have been practicing the RIE® philosophy in their home ever since. Melanie became a RIE® Associate in 2014 after slowly making her way through the professional development program, pausing her studies occasionally to have babies. Melanie teaches RIE® Parent/Infant classes on Saturdays at the the Los Angeles RIE® center. She also teaches RIE® Nurturing Nanny™️ courses and Before Baby™️ classes, as well as private consulting. During the week she is the Tot Center Coordinator and a lead teacher at Kirk O’ the Valley school. Where she works with children 18 months to 3 years old. If you would like to hear more from Melanie you can check out her website raisingwithrespect.com or check her out on YouTube at Raising With Respect, on Twitter: @raisingwrespect and Instagram: raisingwithrespect.