There’s a little Pinocchio in every toddler. Like Pinocchio, toddlers are relatively new to world and inexperienced in its ways. Consequently, like Pinocchio, they’re curious, mischievous, fun-loving, sometimes painfully native – and lacking that internal compass of right and wrong we call a conscience. Except, instead of a charismatic cricket standing by to provide them with the moral guidance they’re not yet able to provide themselves, toddlers have parents and caregivers to show them the way.
It’s their parents to whom toddlers look when they’re uncertain whether that bun is okay to take from the man behind the bakery counter; whether that toy’s okay to play with in the doctor’s waiting room. It’s their parents who tell them that hitting Jeremy when he’s got the truck they want is wrong, and that waiting your turn when three other kids are lined up at the side is hard but right. It’s their parents who prod them to thank Aunt Marie for the jack-in-the-box she brought, and who discourage them from throwing sand at a playmate at the beach.
And like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, the parents of toddlers aren’t the permanent purveyors of conscience for their offspring. They’re merely moral stand-ins, distinguishing for their toddlers the difference between right and wrong until their toddler are able to distinguish for themselves.
Young children, researchers believe, are motivated to behave morally by self-interest and fear of negative consequences. In the next stage of life, the motivation moves up a notch: moral behaviour is based on a desire for approval, a respect for higher authority, and an understanding of the need for maintaining the social order (‘If everybody did this bad thing, what would happen?’).
Generally, not until the teen years does a true sensitivity to the needs of others or a real concept of justice and fairness develop. Without adequate moral guidance and example, though, many people never reach that stage.
But just because it’s too soon to expect consistently ethical behaviour from your toddler – or even to except an understanding of what ethical behaviour is – doesn’t mean it’s too soon to start cultivating a conscience in your child. If you wait until your child is old enough to participate in a philosophical discussion about right and wrong, you’ve waited too long.
To play your Jiminy Cricket role of the fullest, use the following script:
- Explain that actions have consequences. While it’s important to tell your toddler that it’s wrong to throw sand, it’s also important to add the reason why it’s wrong (‘When you throw sand, it can get into someone’s eyes, and that hurts a lot. See Dennyís eyes are all red, and he’s crying.’) And while it’s important to tell your toddler that it’s right to wait your turn instead of pushing your way to the front of the line at the slide, it’s also important to add why it’s right (when you wait your turn, everybody gets to go on the slide, everybody has a good time, and there’s no pushing or fighting to get on first’). Developing empathy is key to developing a conscience.
- Don’t lecture or preach. A simple explanation id all that’s required. Go on and on and your toddler will surely tune you out. And remember: you’re there to guide, not to judge.
- Ask the right questions. Involve your toddler from the start in his or her own moral education, and stimulate thinking about the consequences of actions: after your child swats a playmate, ask ‘How do you think Sarah felt when you hit her?’ When you’ve read a book that has a moral to it, explain it in words your toddler can understand, and them ask for his or her opinion on it. Ask for your toddler’s point of view, too, when a character in a story or on television has done something obviously right or obviously wrong.
- Fault behaviour, not people. Don’t shame your toddler or make him or her feel bad or inadequate for doing something wrong or failing to do something right; criticize the behaviour, not the child. Guide your toddler to do the same in evaluating the behaviour of others. Instead of ‘Cookie monster is not nice for eating all the cookies and not sharing,’ try. ‘Eating all the cookies the way Cookie monster did, and not sharing, isn’t nice.’
- Set a conscientious example. As always, an ounce of example vastly outweighs a pound of instruction. Let your conscience be your guide – and for the time being, your toddler’s – and eventually your child will develop a conscience all his or her own.