A Guide to the Moral Development of Preschoolers

Preschoolers Sharing Toys

As your little one grows, they'll develop a sense of morality—those principles that affect how they treat other people and how they view justice. Their core beliefs, temperament, and life experiences can all influence their sense of morality.

Every day, your preschooler is surrounded by people and situations that guide their moral development. Whether it’s another child on the school playground or a plot line on a favorite TV show, experiences shape their views.

As a parent, you probably want to have some influence on how your child develops their sense of right and wrong and instill the values that you deem to be important. However, it’s not always easy to know what’s age-appropriate when it comes to guiding your child morally—or even how to start.

What Is Early Moral Development?

Around age 2, children start to feel moral emotions and understand—at least somewhat—the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong.

Toddlers and preschoolers are motivated by the threat of consequences. Therefore, early on in their moral development, you might see that they’re more concerned about being punished rather than the feelings of another person.

Your child might also start to show signs of empathy, however, if they see another child who is upset. But empathy often doesn't develop until closer to age 4 or 5.

Don’t worry if toddlers don't seem to care if they hurt someone. With some guidance from you, empathy will come in due time.

Although preschoolers aren’t making life-altering decisions, they do make small moral choices every day

  • Do I share my toy with a friend even though I don’t want to?
  • Do I hit the person who won’t play with me?
  • Should I take my sister's toy from her because I want to play with it?
  • Do I cut in line because I don’t want to wait my turn?
  • Do I sneak a cookie when Dad’s not looking?

While your child will violate your moral codes quite often, each time they step out of line is an opportunity to help them learn. The discipline strategies you employ, combined with the proactive strategies you use to teach them right from wrong, will guide your preschooler’s moral development.

Set the Stage

Teaching kids about morals involves praise and accountability. So, being clear about expectations from the start can set the stage for success.

Be Clear About Morals

Research shows kids begin to understand the "moral of the story" at around age 5 or 6. But, preschoolers are less able to grasp a life lesson from a story about someone else. The concept is too abstract.

So it's important to be very concrete about morals. Say specific things like, "We don't take other people's belongings because it's wrong to take things that don't belong to us. It hurts other people's feelings when we do that and our job is to be kind to people, not hurt them."

As your child's understanding of morals increases, begin to ask them to identify the life lessons in a story. Read books and watch stories with various lessons and check for your child's understanding of how they can generalize that lesson to their own life.

Monitor closely what your child is exposed to. Videos, books, or games that violate moral codes without teaching a lesson may have a negative influence on your child.

Offer Praise

Praise your child for what they do, rather than who they are. So instead of saying, “You’re a good girl,” say, “Great job helping Grandma carry groceries. That was a kind thing to do.”

Be on the lookout for times when your child decides to share, console someone else, tell the truth, or help others. Praise your child for exhibiting those prosocial behaviors. When you point out positive choices, your child will become more motivated to keep up the good work.

Hold Them Accountable

Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s important to make sure your child knows that it’s OK. However, you can’t just let it go—hold your little one accountable.

Verbalize why their behavior was wrong when they make a mistake. Say, “We don’t hit people because it hurts their feelings and their bodies.” Then, give them a consequence, such as placing them in time-out or taking away their favorite toy for the afternoon.

Forcing them to apologize isn’t likely to be helpful. They may not actually feel sorry, so telling them to apologize may just be lip service.

But you can role model how to apologize. When you make a mistake, tell your child that you’re sorry. Say something like, “I am sorry I didn’t get home in time to take you to the park. I tried to get home as soon as I could but it’s too dark to go now.”

Remember, guiding your child’s moral development isn’t something that happens all at once. This will be a process that will last long into your child’s elementary school years and beyond.

Protect Their Self-Esteem

As a parent, you can influence whether your child experiences shame or guilt after they make a mistake. If you express anger at your child or become standoffish, they’ll be more likely to feel shame.

Instill Guilt, Not Shame

When your preschooler violates a moral code by hurting other people, they should have an emotional reaction to it. And while guilt is a sign of a healthy conscience, shame can be a sign of low self-worth.

  • Shame stems from thinking, "I am bad."
  • Guilt stems from thinking, "I did a bad thing."

As a parent, you want to guide the child into feeling guilt rather than shame. A child who feels guilty may recognize they're still a good person who is capable of making better choices in the future.

Guilt is a normal, healthy reaction. It means your child regrets what they've done—and that can motivate them to make amends. Guilty feelings may also prevent them from making the same mistake in the future.

Shame, on the other hand, may cause your child to believe they're incapable of doing the right thing. And it may take a toll on the decisions they'll make in life. A child who feels shame, for example, may not resist peer pressure or may not stand up for themselves when their rights are violated.

Reprimand Choices, Not Children

Avoid reprimanding your child's character by saying things like, “Bad girl!” or “I’m so disappointed in you.” Instead, focus on your child's actions by saying things like, “You made a bad choice,” or “I’m disappointed you made a bad choice.”

Additionally, correct your child’s behavior, not their emotions. So instead of saying, “Stop getting so mad,” or “There’s nothing to be upset about,” say things like, “Use an inside voice. It bothers people when you yell inside.”

Make it clear that feeling sad, mad, excited, or any other emotion is OK. But hitting people, calling them names, or treating them poorly isn’t acceptable.

Tap Into Their Feelings

When children understand their emotions, they'll be able to start understanding that other people have feelings too. And you can begin talking about how their behavior influences how other people feel.

Teach Your Child About Feelings

Your child won't be able to understand other people's feelings and how their actions affect others until they have a clear understanding of their own feelings.

Use feeling words in your everyday conversations. Label your child's emotions by saying things like, "It looks like you feel angry right now," or "I understand you are sad that we can't play outside right now."

Teach Empathy

While your little one may not fully grasp the concept of empathy, it's never too early to begin teaching your child about other people's feelings.

Ask questions, like, "How do you think your friend feels when you don't share?" or "How do you think that boy felt when you hit him?" Help your child label the emotion.

To really reinforce the point, ask your child to show you how the person might feel. When your child makes a sad face to reflect how another individual might feel after getting hurt, they'll actually feel sad for a second. That can reinforce to them that other people have emotions too.

Offer Examples

Your child will learn a lot more from what you do, rather than what you say. So make sure your actions match your words.

Model Good Morals

As the saying goes, practice what you preach. If you don’t want your children to tell lies, role model honesty. Even if you think it’s a little white lie, your child will think dishonesty is OK.

If you want your children to help others, make sure they see you helping others. And point out what you’re doing by saying things like, “We’re going to help Grandpa clean the garage today because we love him and it’s a nice thing to do.”

Volunteer Together

As long as you accompany them, your preschooler can volunteer and help others in a variety of ways. Whether you feed cats at the local animal shelter together, or you collect canned food to donate to the food pantry, emphasize the importance of making the world better.

Even simple acts of kindness go a long way in developing a good moral sense. For example, make a “get well soon” card together for a neighbor who’s feeling under the weather. Then, deliver it together with a container of chicken noodle soup.

A Word From Verywell

There will be times your child will make mistakes that make you wonder if anything you’re doing actually resonates with them. Don’t worry—they hear you. With consistent guidance from you, they'll develop a clear moral compass.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.