According to this article “even very young children can grasp and exhibit moral behaviors.” Experts agree that the children must know in their heads as well as feel in their hearts that what they did was wrong. “Such morality doesn’t appear overnight but emerges slowly, over time” (Ibid.).
Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist, says that parents who respond instantly to a newborn’s cries lay an important moral groundwork. Barbara Howard, a specialist in developmental behavioral pediatrics says that a parent then works to understand what the baby is feeling. Empathy is among the first moral emotions to develop, according to this article.
“Hurting another child . . . is never OK. But how you handle it depends on your child’s age. If a 1-year-old is hitting or biting, ‘you simply say no firmly, and you remove the child from the situation,’” says Craig Ramey, author of “Right From Birth.” But once a child has language skills you might say, “We don’t hit in this family” (Ibid.). You might add, “Everyone feels like hitting and biting from time to time. My job is to help you figure out what to do with those kinds of feelings.” Suggest alternatives—punching a pillow, drawing a dad picture or lying quietly on a bed (Ibid.).
Between 1 and 2 children understand that there are rules, but usually follow them only if an adult is watching, says Barbara Howard. After 2, they start obeying rules—inconsistently—even if an adult isn’t there (Ibid.).
I have noticed that little ones copy a parent’s actions and language patterns. It is wise through the years to point out that other children/teens may have a different point of view or a lack of understanding. Children are fortunate when they have the opportunity to learn to empathize with a younger sibling because the sibling isn’t old enough to understand yet. You can even teach empathy using a doll or favorite stuffed animal.
When children experience conflict is a wise time to help them see the other person’s point of view. At the dinner table you can explain your feelings toward a neighbor who you don’t always agree with and then help the children understand why you are kind anyway and help them understand how the neighbor feels. Note that children who are abused will assume that other people lack trust and feel like they do, so these children need special help.
Experts in the above listed article suggest that you (1) decide what you want to teach and specifically how you are going to do it, (2) praise children liberally and ignore some behaviors you don’t want, (3) take advantage of teachable moments when empathy can be taught, (4) watch what your child watches because TV and computer games teach values, (5) discuss the consequences of different actions. You might say, “Notice how Marty feels now that this has happened.”
It is wise for your children to learn to see things from the other person’s point of view as well as maintain their own values.