Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Moral Development in Toddlers

One needs to spend no more than an hour with a toddler before concluding that they are a bundle of extremes.  Acrimonious rage and euphoric sweetness strangely coexists within one endearing child.  One afternoon, when my son was still a toddler, he caught me crying (despite my valiant effort to hold back my tears).  Upon finding me, he quickly retrieved his favorite toy, Green Bunny, and offered it to console me.  I was overwhelmed by his considerate gesture. Of course, within minutes, the very same toddler also smacked me in the face when I tried to remove him from his blocks after he became enraged with his baby sister for knocking them over.

This behavioral dichotomy can be confounding for parents and can make it very difficult to assess a toddler’s moral development.  On the one hand, toddlers are capable of beautiful empathetic gestures that are sweet and moving and on the other hand the very same child is capable of intensely selfish and obnoxious behavior.  How can a parent know if it is appropriate to discipline a behavior when they don’t know if the child even understands what he or she is doing?

Let’s explore the moral development of toddlers in an effort to equip you with the understanding you’ll need to interpret and tackle those sweet and trying parenting moments.

How Toddler’s View Themselves, Life & Morality

Around the age of two, children become very aware of the rules that govern the world.  They, of course, do not understand these rules, but they are cognizant and generally pleased in this discovery as this understanding enables toddlers to gain power and control.  A tot who throws his sippy cup, loses his sippy cup.  This understanding empowers the toddler and enhances his understanding of the world. After all, a game is much less difficult and frustrating when you can play by the same rules that everyone else is using.

Exploration is a toddler’s ambition.  They yearn to make sense of the big, confusing world.   Given this drive for exploration, toddlers think like scientists in their quest to discover.  They perform behavior experiments to learn about the cause and effects of behavior.  Toddlers delight when they observe how their behaviors impacts others.  It can be exciting to be hollered for throwing food, not because toddlers are moral monsters who delights in upsetting people, but because it is intoxicating to learn that they can control an adult’s behavior.

Toddlers understand that they exist and have goals, feelings and experiences and, as their theory of mind is still developing, they do not always understand that other people have different goals, feelings and experiences apart from them.  A toddler’s theory of mind is transitioning at this stage and this transition is the cause of the unpredictable dichotomy between sweet and sour behavior.  A toddler’s moral compass is much like driving through the mountains while looking for a cellular phone signal.  In some spots the signal comes in strong and clear and in others it is seemingly non-existent.

Toddlers desire to be good and are eager to please, but they are conflicted and pulled by a strong desire to learn about the world in an experiential and sensory way.  This is why verbally advising a child to avoid thorny bushes is not nearly as effective as letting a child accidentally prick themselves and experience the pain resulting from his decision.   Toddlers lack the concrete experiences needed to develop informed opinions about the world and so they seek out information through behavior experiments.  What adults perceive as “bad” behavior is often just a gauche attempt to learn something new.

A black and white moral construct is then fueled by this lack of understanding.  Toddlers are so eager to understand people that they categorize all people and behaviors as “good” or “bad”, where the two cannot coexist.  If the child is unfamiliar or doesn’t understand a new person or thing, it will be categorized as “bad” until further observation.  It also follows, that “good” people do good things and “bad” people do only bad things.  This is why children often have a hard time admitting to their faults and lie as a result.  Healthy children see themselves as “good” and have a hard time understanding how they can be good and yet do something bad.  For more on lying: click here.

Parents are also on the “good” team.  Toddlers are eager to believe that their primary caretakers are good and trustworthy, as a result a child will suffer significant levels of gross negligence and abuse before she is willing to label her parent as wholly “bad”.  This fact should spur parents on in two ways.  Primarily, to ensure that love, mercy and empathy flow through discipline and that harsh, physical punishments are avoided.  (For more on effective and loving discipline, click here.)  Secondly, this can encourage parents who are hesitant to discipline for fear of losing their child’s love.  Toddlers may act angry when you discipline, but they actually derive a deep sense of comfort from loving discipline because it confirms the results of their behavior experiments.  Just like adults, they crave order, justice and reason.

My three-year-old daughter is comforted by yelling, “Bad Mommy!” when I discipline her.  It stings to hear, but her statement is her attempt to deflect her guilt onto me because a toddler’s guilt can be too much to bear alone. Statements such as, “Bad Mommy!” and other retaliatory behaviors, like when my son slapped my face in the introduction, are the result of the child’s immature nervous system being overwhelmed.  They literally feel threatened by guilt and anger and so toddler’s retaliate as defense mechanism.

Toddlers have a difficult time controlling their impulses and interpreting their emotions.  When they feel anger, it can be like a wave engulfing them.  Likewise, their happiness can almost carry them away as though they were floating in a cloud.  What parent’s might interpret as lying, retribution and selfishness is more of a fight or flight response than a reflective moral decision.  In other words, toddlers operate in a reactive mode and haven’t yet developed consistent contemplative abilities.  For more on retributive behaviors, like biting, click here.

Fear is the culprit behind a toddler’s reactive disposition.  It also remains as the most effective way to motivate a toddler, but it can be harmful to their development to overuse fear in your parenting.  Fear-laden parenting tactics keep a child functioning in overdrive and prevents their nervous system from returning to homeostasis.  Avoid using fear-tactics in jest and in discipline whenever possible.  Instead, appeal to empathy and use cause and effect to teach a toddler.


Quick Tips to Morally Train & Discipline a Toddler

In light of our new understanding of the moral development of a toddler, parent’s are advised to proceed with mercy, understanding and consistence through these sweet, but challenging, toddler years.  A toddler still has a very immature nervous system, lack of concrete experiences, underdeveloped theory of mind and difficultly controlling their impulses.  Rage, fury and harsh punishments are not required to teach a toddler a lesson, as they are not moral monsters.  Even though we jokingly may refer to toddlers as a “monster”, toddlers have a great capacity for learning and moral development as well as an intrinsic understanding of order, goodness and justice.  Here are a couple ideas for discipline and moral training:

1) Read stories that teach moral lessons.  Ask your child questions about how the characters felt at key parts of the book.  Ask how they might feel if they were experiencing the same emotions and experiences.  Have they ever felt like that before?  What did they want to do?  What did they do?  What might they do instead next time?

2) Avoid using spanking as a tool for discipline.  Spanking is humiliating and a direct threat to a toddler’s ability to feel safe (fear-tactic).  They will be defensive instead of instructed when you use this method.  Instead, use creative and instructive methods like removing special privileges.  Spanking does not help to teach moral lessons and may cause the child to behave aggressively, no matter how loving you try to make the spanking seem.

3) Model moral behaviors that you want your child to exhibit.  In this case, a picture is really worth a thousand words.  If you are kind, thoughtful and patience, your child is more likely to behave in this way.  Keep in mind that you are leading by example all day, every day.  If you make a mistake, be willing to admit this to your child.  They are watching you.

4) Be consistent.  Choose fewer rules, but hold your child accountable to every rule you choose to make.  Looking the other way when you are too tired to follow through is confusing and WILL lead to more negative behaviors.  Toddlers often intentionally behave in a way that they know is wrong, just because they want you to discipline them and confirm their understanding of the rule as well as fulfill their craving for order.

5) Recognize moral strides.  Make a point of noticing when your child does something kind, good or right.  Describe what they did that was good and why, while avoiding telling him that they are good.  Ask, “How do you feel when you do that?” and “How does the other person feel when you do that?”.  For more on moral praise, click here.

sad curly little girl






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