Your 20-month-old can’t explain to you why something is right or wrong, but they are beginning to understand the concept. In fact, much of what they’ve learned up to this point has led them to discriminate between right and wrong in its most basic forms. Some research shows that toddlers can understand the concept of fairness as early as age 19-months.
For example, your toddler might gasp when a character does something naughty in a story. Or, they might clap with excitement after helping you clean up their toys. They already know the fundamental difference between wrong and right based on “social referencing,” or paying attention to how you and other caregivers react to things.
You can build on this basic knowledge to expand your little one’s moral development. Having strong morals, not surprisingly, benefits children as they grow into adulthood. Among other plusses, it can help them stand up for themselves and others, make positive choices, and develop strong, healthy relationships.
Emphasizing Right and Wrong
Here are some ways to emphasize right and wrong as your child’s morals continue to develop.
Connecting with your child in a positive way is their first moral roadmap. Showing interest, compassion, forgiveness, and love models “the right things” to them.
Positive guidance in the form of setting developmentally-appropriate limits (and following through with them as consistently as possible) is foundational to moral development. Limits help little ones learn important values such as personal responsibility, accountability, and how to treat others.
An important piece of developing morals is Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM helps children understand that what they think or feel isn’t necessarily what everyone else thinks and feels. Children gain the building blocks of ToM in infancy and toddlerhood, eventually helping them see that their actions may negatively affect others.
You can strengthen this concept by noting everyday differences to your toddler. For instance, “You love the color green! Your sister really loves blue. My favorite is purple. We all like different colors!” Or, “I know you want to play with the cat, but he wants to take a nap. Let’s let him rest and you can play with him later.”
Talk about emotions.
The emotion-behavior connection is an important part of moral development. You can help your toddler understand it by labeling and exploring feelings, as well as positive ways to respond to feelings. Self-regulation is still hard at this stage, but you can support it by consistently guiding behavior that stems from emotions: “It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hit. Let’s go outside and stomp on the ground instead.”
Above all, be patient! Remember that your toddler’s moral development is very much in its beginning stages! They still need time to be able to do the right thing, and patient guidance is key. It can be hard, but try to stay positive when they do things like grab a friend’s favorite teddy bear and run away. Take a deep breath, remember that it’s a normal step on their moral journey, and talk to them about how that behavior might make their friend feel. Head over here for in-depth advice for intervening in toddler sharing squabbles.