Raising A Moral Child

FIRST COMES HEALTH. "Doctor," every parent asks, "is my baby OK?" Then comes the harder part: "Will my child turn out to be good?" A child's first few years of life are the key to whether you wind up with a darling or a delinquent. What may ultimately become empathy, generosity or charity stems initially from a child's selfish preoccupations. Infants are unable to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world. That may be why newborns cry at the sound of other babies crying--they're not sure who's really hurting. This "reflexive crying" means that babies have the capacity to respond to others' distress--a primitive form of empathy. It also suggests that some morals are hard-wired from birth.

Scientists have long noted that empathetic parents tend to have empathetic children. One recent experiment on toddlers found that identical twins were more likely than fraternal twins to show similar inclinations to help people. Because identical twins share more genes, this is proof that nature, not just nurture, is at work, says Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and one of those who conducted the study. Researchers don't think there are "good" genes and "bad" genes. But they suspect that genes influence patterns of brain chemistry, which in turn govern some behaviors.

Still, genes are only part of the picture. It's up to parents to show their kids the ethical ropes. While newborns aren't likely to absorb long lectures, they can grasp many rules before they--or their parents-even realize it. Dr. Robert Coles, a Harvard child psychiatrist and author of "The Moral Intelligence of Children," maintains that there are moral implications to nearly every decision a parent makes. "It's those everyday, minute-by-minute cues that the little ones pick up on," says Coles.

Rushing to the crib every time a child cries may train her to expect instant gratification. It doesn't do the harried parents any favors, either. Not only will they lose control of their lives while the child is an infant, but "it may be difficult for them to say no down the line," says Coles. Children who don't learn the meaning of the word "no" will be at the mercy of impulses and desires they don't know how to control. The result? Spoiled and demanding little tyrants. This isn't just a matter of discipline. "The child has to learn that there is a higher authority that you just don't question," Coles says.

Parents may be unintentionally sending signals from the start, or deliberately shaping the most crucial messages. In his book, Coles relates the story of Maisie, a woman whose 6-month-old son, Don, seemed to relish the act of tossing his empty bottle onto the kitchen floor. At first Maisie figured Don didn't know any better. But she quickly began to suspect he was enjoying the commotion. Maisie then waited by her son's highchair and, while distracting him with chatter, gently eased away the empty bottle. The boy soon lost interest in throwing it. What may seem like a clever mother's trick was actually an early lesson in morals. "That's a kind of moral awareness; it's learning the meaning of constraint," says Coles.

Most moral training doesn't have to be so calculated. Pat-a-cake and peekaboo look like innocent play, but the parent is in fact communicating complex sets of rules about turn-taking and expectations. Learning to alternate coos or synchronize gazes with a parent prepares the baby for more intricate relationships later in life. "This is social reciprocity," says Dr. Robert Erode, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. This kind of give-and-take is at the heart of all moral systems. Put simply, it's the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Babies who are cuddled and cared for--who aren't spoiled but have theft emotional needs met--are more likely to demonstrate caring behavior later.

Children who go emotionally hungry in infancy may simply not have the biological wherewithal to be compassionate. Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine, studied brain scans of children who had been severely neglected. He discovered that the brain region responsible for emotional attachments never developed properly. According to Perry, babies who don't get their quota of TLC early in life may lack the proper wiring to form close relationships. Other research supports the theory. Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, a psychologist at the NIMH, found that toddlers who'd been abused were themselves more likely to hit or insult a crying peer.

As infants learn to crawl and then to walk, the budding explorers grow familiar with how things look and where they belong. By the age of 2, kids have become sticklers for consistency and can't tolerate it when their own "rules" are violated. A toddler might become outraged, for example, if his mashed potatoes touch his peas. At the same time, children are constantly testing the boundaries of their new world. But they don't go it alone. By 18 months, kids will turn to Mom or Dad for guidance in unfamiliar situations. Experts call this "social referencing." In one study, Emde watched as toddlers glanced at their mothers' expressions, seeking tacit permission, before approaching a strange robot.

Social referencing helps children acquire the moral emotions of pride and shame. Pride is the celebration kids feel as a reward for "getting it right," says Emde. A big smile and a "puffed up" posture are telltale symptoms. Shame, on the other hand, occurs when kids form mental images of a disapproving parent. Ashamed children avert their eyes and try to shrink out of sight. That may not be all bad. "Shame is a part of growing up and developing a conscience," says Coles. It reinforces the notion that certain behavior-say, torturing the family pet--just isn't acceptable. Warns Coles: "Ira child doesn't learn to be ashamed of that behavior, we're in real trouble by the age of 2 or 3."

As children learn to talk, parents can tutor them in positive behaviors, such as altruism and manners. By saying "Let's both of us say 'thank you'," a parent sets a good example and includes the child in the behavior. Such joint efforts are more effective than direct commands. They also help instill a sense of belonging to a team, what Emde calls "an executive sense of we." By the time they are 2, even when they are alone, kids retain a sense of a parent guiding them. In one experiment, Emde tempted children to play with toys forbidden to them by their mothers. Remarkably, the toddlers resisted-even though their mothers were out of the room. "Didn't you hear my mommy? I better not play with those toys," one toddler said.

Just as children learn to imitate language and gestures, they also mimic the moral practices they see. Good role models help. Consider the effect on a toddler who hears his father say "Tell him I'm not here" when the boss calls at home. Showering a spouse with a chorus of "pleases" and "thank yous," on the other hand, will likely lead to a thoughtful tot. "Every day is a school day when it comes to moral development," says Coles. By doing their homework, parents can help their kids graduate with honors.

82% of all mothers and 74% of all fathers say they plan to send their child to Sunday school or some other kind of religious training