Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Moral Development in Babies

Babies crawling

Discussing the morality of your baby may seem ridiculous and, until recently, theorists would have agreed.  We discussed in detail two weeks ago, how past centuries viewed infant morality and how current theorists see it differently.   In review, recent studies have demonstrated that infants very likely possess a hard-wired moral sense that is incomplete, and yet powerful enough to inform their assessments of and preferences for others.

Much of morality is very abstract and philosophical and so it can be difficult to make conclusive, concrete statements about what babies think and when they come to understand.  Instead of using the tried-and-true interview technique, researchers must use clever and thorough observation techniques to learn more about what is going on in a baby’s mind.

But why go to all the trouble?  What is point of studying infant morality, especially when it seems so subjective?  The study of a baby’s morality can tell us more about how she views herself and her place within the world.  Like adults, babies and children use a construct to inform their life decisions.  Understanding more about this construct can teach us about our children and help us to nurture the whole child.  (This reference guide is meant to be a quick summary.  I hope to offer a detailed course via webinar later this year.)

How Babies View Themselves, Life & Morality

A baby’s perception of himself, as an individual within the world, is constantly developing.  At birth, it is unclear to researchers how much a baby understands, but as the first year unfolds, the baby, rather quickly, begins to grasp that he is a separate entity from his mother and father.  He possess his own desires and preferences and can act on his own accord.  From the moment the baby looks in the mirror and, for the first time, recognizes that the face looking back at him is himself, a new world floods his consciousness.  He begins to see two separate divisions in life, himself and everyone else.

In our culture, morals help to govern these two realms (the self and the rest of the world).  When people think of morals, they often consider the oppressive nature by which their will is squelched to serve the common good and so a discussion of morals come wrapped in a package of guilt, blame and shame.  It will be helpful to toss that conception of morality aside while you read and consider morality apart from human error and corruption.  Morals help humans to live together and, ultimately, survive and thrive.  An amoral society is a dystopic one, fueled by self-destruction.

Because adults are conscious of the sacrifices that morality begs us to make, we tend to view ourselves as serving morality, whereas babies welcome morality because it creates a helpful frame of reference for viewing a very confusing world.  Luckily for infants, their morality seems to be instinctual and their inherent sense of right and wrong helps them to know who to trust.  Their instincts instruct them to label people as good or bad and then reject the bad and cling to the good.

So, babies benefit from morality and they welcome it open arms, but they cannot consistently integrate their morality into their construct.   As the baby grows, he will learn that he can impact others, for better for worse.  You’ll notice a 9 month old baby experimenting with this exciting discovery when she throws food off of her high chair and expresses delight as you pick it up.  Notice that even when you look angry, cajole and reprimand, young babies will persist and even act putout when you remove her food as though to say, “Hey! You must be the bad guy here!”.  This is because self-shaming and is still foreign.  In their mind, when they are unhappy, you are the problem and not them.  They can evaluate your behavior and responses, as well as their own, but only in terms of how either help them obtain what they want and need.

It is not until later that a baby might shrink in shame after doing something that upsets you.  Most children under two-years-of-age do not feel shame, but some might experience it for the first time as early as 18 months old.  This fact is very relevant for parents as it informs what results what you can expect from discipline and ultimately which discipline tactics are even useful in the baby years.

How to Morally Train & Discipline a Baby

Young children, under the age of two-years, are eager to learn rules, but see rules as part of a grand game.  They observe that adults play by a set of rules and so knowing these rules makes them feel included in the adult world.  At the same time, they also are developing independence and will reject rules as a way of sharpening the distinction between the parent and themselves.  Their tantrums and refusal to comply isn’t morally bad at this phase, it is just their way of telling you that they need a little space.   Babies waver between dependence and independence with intensity.

Discipline and moral instruction, at this age, needs to be very basic and limited. Stick to teaching babies rules that keep themselves and other safe and leave more developed lessons for later in life.  Labeling a baby’s behavior as “bad” or “good” will not be effective because they are not ready to process these labels.  Behavior is driven by the desire to explore and understand themselves, others and the world, as well as by the desire to recognize themselves as an individual, apart from their parents.

Instead of punishment, redirect babies whenever you can, as harsh rebuke will only backfire at this age.  Again, babies will not be able to connect your severity with their behavior.  They will interpret your intense rebuke or punishment as you behaving badly bad.  People that behave badly in a babies mind are wholly bad and so “bad behavior” causes a child to believe that you are less trustworthy.

Also, use teaching methods that allow the baby to understand natural consequences and select and stick to reasonable limits.  Any action needs to be always OK or not OK (never bad or good).  Consistency helps the baby understand the rules and feel secure.  Teach rules and lessons like you would the rules to a board games: stay positive, be understanding and patient, and be ready to find work-arounds when the your original plan doesn’t seem effective.

Expect that, around the age of 15-months, your sweet baby will begin to misbehave and test the limits and often by 18 months, many babies will have reached was is commonly known as the “terrible twos”.  Again, your child is not transforming into a moral monster or damning his soul with disobedience.  Children under two are not willfully defiant nor are they amoral, just curious, insecure and trying to understand their identity and the world.  They are ready for a new phase and desire the freedom to explore life apart from you, but they need to know that you’ll be there to catch them when they fall.

Next Week

Babies are social scientists and use behavior experiments to draw important conclusions, but times will change and defiance is just around the corner.  Stay tuned next week for our discussion of moral development in two and three year old children.

Baby with toys

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