Morality in Infants: Birth to Two

“We do not develop into the image of God; we are the image of God.”
– James R. Estep, Jr., Christian Formation

Infants are born already having the internal capacity and sensibility for the development of an inner moral compass. But they are also born completely egocentric, which is the lowest stage of morality. That does not mean infants are making poor moral choices; it simply means they’re not making conscious moral choices at all. According to Piaget, infants are in a pre- moral stage. They express their own wants and needs, demanding attention without regard for the wants and needs of others (like Mom, who needs a good night of sleep). But that’s because infants are not yet capable of seeing the world from anyone else’s perspective, so they don’t understand that other people have needs too. In fact, at first an infant seems to consider her primary caregiver to be an extension of herself.

Still, the stepping stones of moral thinking are being laid even in infancy, first with the basic feelings of comfort and discomfort, pleasure and pain. Even more important is the awareness of a caregiver’s acceptance or rejection. Since respect for others is the foundation of morality, when infants feel accepted and respected, they are on the way to accepting and respecting others. Conversely, when infants feel rejected, they are on the way to rejecting others.

The goal of moral development is empathy, according to theorist Martin Hoffman. But empathy is slow to develop. We may think that newborns have an innate sense of empathy, because they cry when they hear other babies cry. The truth is, their response is egocentric. They are not empathizing with the other babies but cry simply because hearing others cry makes them feel distressed. Even a six-month-old in the presence of a distressed person will try to comfort herself by sucking her thumb or clinging to her mother or asking to be picked up. By the time she’s one year old, she will try to comfort the distressed person. But why? Because the other person is upsetting her.

A basic requirement for the growth of morality is understanding cause and effect. We have to understand that our actions have consequences, that what we say and do affects other people. Infants are constantly learning cause and effect. They discover that they can bring smiles and frowns to the people around them. They also learn that their actions can elicit a “yes” or a “no.”

Infants are sensitive to their caregiver’s tone of voice and body language, which indicate approval and disapproval. Young children depend on these outward cues to guide them toward right choices. But moral development is a process, and children don’t correctly discern between right and wrong consistently until they’re about six years old.

Birth to Two

– egocentric
– premoral
– undifferentiated faith
– sensorimotor interaction with the world

Conflict: Trust vs. Mistrust

Strength: Hope

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Image at top by esudroff from Pixabay