Post No.: 0586
For a less stressful time at parenting and to be less unnecessarily harsh on one’s children – parents must understand how moral reasoning develops in children and when. Meow.
Even infants are sensitive to fairness, good versus bad actors, and reading the desires and intentions that cause other people to act, to an extent. Young infants don’t like seeing other people suffer, and prefer people who help others to those who hurt others, unless a person is punishing a bad person i.e. they seem to recognise justice, even if they weren’t the victims. 15-month olds are more surprised about witnessing an unfair distribution of cookies between people than a fair one (although it’s hard to interpret what they’re actually thinking inside their minds during their reaction of surprise). Toddlers would rather reward (give a treat to) a good figure and punish (take a treat away from) a bad figure. Young children can distinguish between heroes and villains in movies. And even more than adults, children often struggle to act as they wish and may sometimes do or say things that they understand to be morally wrong, despite their best intentions, because their brains have not yet fully developed.
Morality is however overall a combination of the biological and cultural. What babies are naturally born with is a decent foundation but it needs to be built upon and nurtured too. Moral beliefs are prescriptions for how we believe things ‘ought to be’ (e.g. how we should act, speak and even think). We arrive at these by assigning values to different behaviours. They can come from religious, spiritual, secular, cultural or familial institutions, and they are perceived to be rooted in a broader sense of our place in the universe or society and the (natural) order to which we should try to conform.
Morals are human social constructs regarding human acts. (Nation states, democracy, money and property rights are also examples of social constructs – they don’t arise naturally but are socially constructed. Take note that humans are the only known species to have such things.) Apart from perhaps psychopaths, everyone innately cares about morality, even though we may vastly differ in what we deem as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we all hold certain opinions and feel experiences of moral outrage or disgust when other people violate our personal deepest moral convictions. It’s very unnatural for people to not view human actions via the lens of ‘right or wrong’.
Common agreements on what’s considered bad however include murder, rape, theft, cheating, having sex with a friend’s partner, cheating on your partner, ruining another person’s reputation without just cause, and causing harm without provocation. Common controversies regard for instance drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, having sex with relatives, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, taxation and welfare, the necessity of war, and the death penalty. So some moral values are relatively more universal than others, although this doesn’t tell us whether it’s because some are innate or can be taught and learnt (or can even be taught-out or overridden, whether originally innate or learnt)? People live socially and so sharing the same morals matter.
Many parents believe in a Freudian perspective of psychology – that children begin as innately selfish beings (the id), who need to learn about morality (the superego), and must continually from then on fight their selfish impulsive desires to remain moral (the ego) in order for civilisation to be maintained. But children actually appear to be innately born with a (rudimental) moral compass and experience many of the same internal moral conflicts as adults.
However, the brains of children and adolescents are very different to adults in that their prefrontal cortices (used when suppressing impulsive urges and for planning and selecting behaviours), in particular, aren’t yet fully developed until they’re ~25 years old. (This matches automobile accident statistics and why insurance companies charge premiums according to those statistics. Adolescent males are involved in more serious, more DUI and overall more accidents than adolescent females too, because adolescent males are typically more aggressive and take greater risks due to hormonal differences combined with cultural expectations of what it means to behave like a ‘man’.)
Without a well-functioning prefrontal cortex, we’d likely just be impulsive and constantly act on every single thought or urge we had without constraint. Thus even if we knew that we don’t want to act on or say something, we’d have a hard time holding back from acting on our impulses. (Some recreational drugs can also reduce inhibitions, which might result in someone overtly revealing their private racist or homophobic views when intoxicated, for instance.) So the problem that most children face isn’t so much that they don’t understand what is moral or not – they primarily face a problem when trying to suppress their impulsive actions.
Repeatedly lecturing children is thus ineffectual, especially when the situation is not conducive for learning any moral lesson because the child is feeling too scared or stressed whilst in the midst of being punished for their actions, or they’re otherwise not in a calm enough state of mind for any lesson to sink in. Lots of parents realise this after angrily roaring out the same lectures for the umpteenth time to no avail – yet these parents still continue to do it(!) (In fact, many parents will then believe that it takes roaring at them even more forcefully to ram a lesson home! Which is like believing that double-downing on a losing investment will save it.) More effective strategies include modifying the environment to remove any temptations that might elicit impulsive behaviour.
This doesn’t altogether mean that teaching them the rules is pointless. Rules are the antidote to chaos. Children are sometimes more likely than adults to rely on rules/conventions to guide their moral judgements. The moral lesson ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is a common fluffy starter lesson in morality. This is just a starter lesson because it only teaches the child to think about how others might feel, not by thinking deeply about them but ironically by thinking about one’s own feelings. The more refined moral lesson is ‘do unto others as they would want done unto them’ but this requires skills like proper theory of mind and empathy to develop first. But this starter lesson can work to a degree for getting children to think twice before doing something mean to others.
Ideally though, rather than needing to consciously apply a rule (or indeed needing to have external rules and enforcement imposed upon them, such as school rules) to moderate their behaviours every time they decide upon an action – they should preferably have an intuitive sensitivity to not be mean towards others. Compassion is needed. This could be split into caring about other people’s mental states and being able to guess what those mental states are in the first place (e.g. not wanting someone else to suffer, and knowing that someone else is suffering when they are, respectively) – and these abilities develop at different rates. Empathy is a necessary component but isn’t sufficient on its own. The other important component is then acting upon this empathy – sometimes even ‘hurting oneself’ in order to alleviate the suffering of someone else (e.g. giving up something one likes or values, such as one’s own time, money or food, in order to help someone else).
Newborn babies contestably already exhibit some form of empathy because of contagious crying with other babies – although we don’t know what babies are really thinking when they do this because they cannot answer the question, “What are you thinking when you’re doing this?” They could be genuinely feeling the pain of another baby or they could be just copying their outward behaviours? They likely will be feeling some pain though due to the feedback effect from crying itself, and if so, it shows that even newborn babies will innately ‘hurt themselves’ (via crying themselves, which isn’t a pleasant emotion) in order to feel what other babies feel. This suggests that humans are normally born with innately hardwired mechanisms that allow empathy, and in turn compassion and altruism, to function (to alleviate the painful emotions of another being so that one no longer mirrors those painful emotions from them). This probably shouldn’t be surprising because humans evolved to be social animals who are much stronger together than the mere sum of their parts, hence evolved innate mechanisms that allow social cooperation to function.
From ~6 months old onwards, babies express a preference for prosocial or kind people and an aversion towards antisocial or mean people. From ~14 months onwards, infants will try to help other people to accomplish tasks that these other people cannot do by themselves. From ~18-24 months onwards, children will try to comfort other people when they’re in distress.
However, during these same months when infants exhibit evidence of caring about other people and how they feel, they remain poor at guessing what other people are actually thinking i.e. a ‘theory of mind’, or recognising that the world can look or feel different to different people, especially compared to oneself. They require this ability in order to be able to build a model of what other people may be thinking or may know, and to understand that this could be different to what oneself is thinking or knows. This only fully develops after ~4-5 years (autistic children will develop this much later though, depending on the severity of their autism). Imagining visually seeing things from other people’s perspectives develops after ~6-8 years old onwards. Post No.: 0581 examined a few more crucial, particularly cognitive, developmental milestones.
Theory of mind technically involves a collection of different abilities that develop at different rates. Proper theory of mind is being able to understand the mind of another person (e.g. their pains and desires in a given situation), rather than assuming that the mind of another person is the same as your own (e.g. your pains and desires if you were in that same situation). Examples include understanding that one person’s idea of fun or success can be different to someone else’s.
Theory of mind, or a sensitivity to ‘false belief’ (e.g. understanding why someone is searching for a ball of wool over there when you know it’s really over here), is useful for trying to make sense of other people’s present and past behaviours so that we can try to predict their future behaviours. This is difficult though because people’s intentions aren’t always overt or externally visible (whereas it’s relatively easier to predict inanimate objects or simple machines e.g. the path of a rock rolling down the side of a mountain or the movement of a clock). Humans are incredibly complex machines and can have different motivations and functions in different contexts and according to individual backgrounds and biological make-ups, so theory of mind helps us to try to predict other people’s beliefs and desires and thus subsequent actions. Even adults don’t always get it right, but young children in particular struggle at guessing what other people believe, know or are thinking.
Meow. The main lesson here isn’t one for children but for parents to learn – and it’s understanding that children don’t yet have the brains of adults. That’s why they can appear to be more impulsive and inconsiderate. Therefore, ironically, it’s adults who need to better empathise with the minds of children of various ages!