Morality in Twos and Threes

“Playing as children means playing is the most serious thing in the world.” – G.K. Chesterton

As Eric Erikson pointed out, will is the strength that should develop at ages 2 and 3 years. That’s both good news and challenging news. It’s good news because it’s a sign that toddlers are maturing. It’s challenging news because it means they are now aware that they can make deliberate choices. With deliberate choices come moral decisions: Do I assert my will or submit my will? Everyone in a toddler’s world is drawn into the child’s struggle to find the balance.

For toddlers, the struggle with will is intensely difficult. Even though they’re maturing, they’re still quite egocentric, so everything in the world is theirs to see, smell, taste, touch, or hear. Everything is potentially “mine.” The way young children play reflects this struggle. Twos and threes engage in what’s called “parallel play,” which means they play side by side but not cooperatively together. Two toddlers may be playing with blocks beside each other, but “these are mine and those are yours” and never the twain shall meet. If I decide one of yours is mine, we have a big problem.

The good news is that as children approach age three, they reach a developmental milestone: They begin “perspective taking.” This means that toddlers begin to be able to understand another person’s viewpoint and realize that other people have rights, opinions, possessions, and feelings just the way they do.

One two-year-old girl, who was not yet at the perspective-taking stage, hit a boy in her play group. Her mother, appalled, asked her, “How do you think that felt?” The little girl studied her fist and answered, “It felt pretty good.” She interpreted even Mom’s question egocentrically.

Dr. Thomas Lickona, who has studied developing morality, has a wonderfully concise way of explaining these stages: “What’s right” to a child at this stage, says Lickona, is “to get my own way.” This is stage one of morality, according to researchers. It’s what we might call “superficial” morality, in which the reason to be “good” is to gain reward and/or avoid punishment. (Note: It’s possible for older kids and even adults to revert to – or live in – this egocentric stage, in which “what’s right is to get my own way.”)

With superficial morality, children depend on consistently enforced rules to help them discern what’s right and what’s wrong. Consistent rules also give children a sense of safety and security. They may buck the rules, but having no rules – or having rules that are inadequate or inconsistently enforced – leaves children feeling uncertain, insecure, and anxious.

One thing about toddlers: They usually have to be told the same rules over and over again. It’s hard for them to generalize and understand that a rule may apply everywhere and in all situations. In other words, if a child is told to share at Timmy’s house, he takes that directive as specific and limited (at Timmy’s house), not as a general rule (always share your toys). So with a change of playmate or location, children may have to hear the directive again.

Respecting other people includes people of other cultures and races. Dr. Marguerite Wright researches racial awareness in children. She calls the stage from birth to age three a time of “racial innocence.”3 Children of this age see people as individuals, not as groups. In fact, until they’re about five years old, children don’t see people as members of any kind of group – unless adults point that out. We are not born with bias. It’s the significant people in our lives who influence our first thoughts about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status. It’s the significant people in our lives who first calibrate our moral compass.

Two and Three – fantasy/reality confusion

– strong imagination
– impressionable, gullible
– imitating significant adults
– childlike logic, literal thinking – developing a “sense of other” – rule dependent


Autonomy vs. Shame

Strength: Will

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

Top image by Bess Hamiti from Pixabay