How to nurture your child’s natural morality
Is morality nature or nurture? Are we born knowing the difference between good and evil? More importantly, can we recognize these traits in others as infants? Scientists now believe that infants are born with a moral compass.
In the past, experts have believed that parents need to install morals in our children. We teach them how to treat other people and animals. We teach them the difference between good and evil.
As it turns out, new research is surfacing that suggests that babies are not born as blank canvases. They are actually innately empathetic and compassionate. This research suggests that they can actually distinguish good from evil as early as three months of age!¹
From my experience, I believe this to be true. My toddler was only six months old when I began to observe her getting agitated if someone around her was upset. Especially if another baby was crying. Even now, if another child is crying, she will stop what she is doing to make sure they are alright.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written a book called “Just Babies”. In this book, he explores if we are born with the ability to determine when someone else is hurting and display empathy. He states that babies show signs of compassion at a very early stage in life. During his studies, he has witnessed infants comforting others once their coordinated movement skills were developed. They would do this by stroking or patting the person who was upset.¹
Dr.Bloom found that babies reacted negatively to characters that displayed unkind behavior towards others. The nice characters were favored in opposition.
I watched a Canadian documentary program called “The Nature of Things” a few years ago that explored this topic. They showed a study that was conducted on morals in babies and the results were eye-opening!
In this study, six-month-old babies watched a play with two stuffed bunnies. One in a blue shirt and the other in a green shirt. They were rolling a ball back and forth. The bunny in the blue shirt rolled the ball back to the bunny in the green shirt. The bunny in the green shirt ran away with the ball, while the bunny in the blue shirt shared the ball with his counterpart. At the end of the play, the babies were given a choice of which bunny they wanted to play with. The infant typically picked the bunny in the blue shirt: The “nice bunny”. They repeated this scenario several times with the same result.
This study was a breakthrough in child psychology. It revealed that infants preferred to play with the bunny who was kind as opposed to the bunny that didn’t share the ball. This could mean that babies can tell the difference between right and wrong behavior. Even more interesting, they favored the character that displayed positive traits.
Dr.Bloom has conducted similar studies with babies. He believes that although we are born with a basic moral compass, our opinion of when to feel compassion for someone changes over time. This happens when we develop an opinion on what fairness means to us.
Babies basically live in a “bubble” where modern conveniences and situations don’t apply to them yet. For example, they can’t get angry when someone cuts them off in traffic because they cannot drive yet. As they grow, situational frustration does as well. This also determines their level of empathy and compassion for others.
So from these findings, we can see that our children are born with basic moral principles. However, these traits need to be nurtured throughout life. Lessons must be taught to sustain this compassionate behavior.
Here are some ways to nurture your child’s moral compass and strengthen their skills with people:
- Praise your child when you notice them being kind or generous. Children respond well to praise and are more likely to repeat this behavior if they receive positive feedback.
- If you see your child take a toy from another child, take it away from them and give it back to the other child. I have tried this with my daughter and it works!
- Make sure your child is reading books and consuming media that promotes good behavior. “Sesame Street” is a good example of a television show that teaches good moral lessons. However, do not just sit your child in front of the television. Watch the show with them and use this opportunity to discuss the subject matter with them. While reading a book, stop and talk about the plot and take time to answer any questions they may have.²
- Lead by example. Take your shopping cart back to the store after using it. While in line at the store, allow people to go in front of you, and be kind to service people. You are your child’s greatest teacher. Children idolize their parents and they will copy whatever they see you doing.
- When your child is upset, empathize with them. When they are revealing their feelings, name their emotions. For example, when they are upset say “I’m sorry you’re feeling sad.” When you give them a name for their feelings, they will be able to recognize these feelings in others.
- Take care of yourself. Make time to do hobbies you enjoy, this will alleviate any stress you are experiencing. When we are stressed, we have a harder time giving ourselves to others. By practicing self-care, we are ensuring we have the energy to foster empathy and teach compassion to our children.²
While nature provides us with a basic moral compass, empathy is something we need to be continuously working on. If we lead by example and practice kindness in our daily lives, our children will follow suit. Children who have compassion for others are more likely to turn into adults with good values.
If we teach our children about compassion and empathy today, it will give them a better tomorrow.
 Gareth Cook (November 12, 2013) The Moral Life of Babies https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-moral-life-of-babies/
 Tom Lickona (October 2018) For Families: 5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-families/5-tips-cultivating-empathy