The experts agree: The time to start teaching your children about values is earlier than you might expect. Research shows that little ones notice others’ emotional cues—the building blocks of empathy—in infancy. And by the age of 2 or 3, children have the capacity to understand simple moral concepts, said child psychologist Robert Myers, Ph.D. “Teaching empathy, self-control, and emotional regulation at an early age lay the foundation for [children to] learn and understand moral values and concepts,” he said.
We all want our kids to become kind, compassionate, and respectful, but communicating such values during early childhood can feel daunting. Child development expert Dawn Rundman, Ph.D., said understanding your child’s developmental stage and temperament is key to passing on morals. Here’s a primer, with tips from Myers and Rundman.
What science tells us about young minds
As any mom who has witnessed her toddler parrot a naughty word knows, children absorb their surroundings like little sponges. This keen sense of observation is working from day one of your baby’s life. “Infants do not have a ‘learning switch’ where they decide consciously to be learning new things for part of the day before they flip it off,” Rundman said. “They are always learning from their experiences—this is how their brains and bodies are designed.”
According to Rundman, infants learn best when they have a consistent, loving caregiver to meet their basic needs, protect them from harm, and introduce them to the big, busy world around them. Importantly, parents of babies need to know that providing “the original form of ‘face time’ to their babies” is just as vital as feedings and diaper changes, she added.
By the time children become toddlers, an increase in mobility and grasp of basic language lead to new learning dynamics. Play and loving interactions are still critical; your toddler also needs you to set healthy boundaries, which they’ll proceed to test. At this age, they’ll begin to understand and follow rules, Myers said, avoiding punishment and seeking reward.
Set the stage by defining your beliefs
Whether you’re partnered or a single parent, take time to articulate your values by writing them down or talking about them so you can better communicate them to your child in words and actions. Rundman suggested “asking yourself and your parenting partner what childhood experiences you had that you treasure and which parts were more difficult.” What do you want to emulate or amend now that you’re the parent?
Also consider how you approach relationships with others, how you treat animals and nature, and your sense of purpose in your community and the world. If you’re religious, think about how you view God. In our family, for example, we value honesty, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, and gratitude, which stem from our faith.
Parents should think about values early and often, Rundman said. If you’re coupled, this is not a “one and done conversation” but rather an ongoing discussion you’ll have throughout childhood.
Wondering how to introduce values to babies? Here are three tips to start:
1. Build a healthy relationship
Recent research indicates that in the first years of life, “the brain is hardwired to form strong relationships,” Rundman notes in her book, Little Steps, Big Faith. Creating a secure attachment with your infant is paramount to their emotional development, she added. Myers recommended parents bond with baby through “positive and playful interaction,” which will evolve in complexity as they mature. “Babies also need to be kept safe, as they are very impulsive.” When you meet baby’s needs for nourishment, sleep, play, security and love, you’re nurturing a healthy relationship from which she will perceive all others.
2. Share your values through song and story
Babies are capable of making meaning from music, so thoughtfully curating a values-based playlist can have a big impact. If you’re person of faith, that might mean integrating your favorite worship music. You can also just integrate songs—like the impossible-to-forget jingles from Daniel Tiger—that reflect your core beliefs. (A personal favorite is, “When you feel so mad and you want to roar, take a deep breath, and count to four!”)
Additionally, as you talk with your baby and read them stories, be mindful of the types of stories you share. “Your children’s library and many online reading lists will be helpful in listing titles that will help you start naming the values most important to you,” Rundman said (see our recommendations of books that celebrate diversity). Try to include at least one values-centric book during storytime.
3. Integrate values into your routines
When you make talking about values a habit, your infant will notice and eventually join you as he ages. “Ritualize your values. Say or sing them out loud at predictable times, like before meals (we are thankful for this food!) or as you pick up toys (we are helpful, helpful, helpful with our friends!),” Rundman said. Think through your existing routines, such as bedtime. What might you add to convey what matters most? Perhaps you’ll add an affirmation of love or prayer.
And here are three tips for teaching toddlers about values:
1. Notice and name positive behavior
Now that your child’s more mature, it’ll be easier for you to communicate your beliefs. “When you notice your child showing a positive value, name it so they start understanding how their behaviors match up to these values,” Rundman said. “No need to go overboard with affirming their every move, but I think it’s good for parents to get in the happen of noticing and naming. In a lot of family systems where kids show challenging behaviors, the negative behaviors are the only things named by the parent, so the child may get into a pattern of learning this is the most effective way to get attention.”
Rundman urged parents of toddlers to continue selecting music and books that reflect your values and religion, if applicable. Age-appropriate video clips, shows, and movies may now be in the mix as well. Take time after reading or watching stories that discuss difficult topics (e.g. what happens when you lie or hurt someone) and name positive vs. undesirable behaviors to familiarize your child with your expectations.
2. Introduce rules
In between the ages of 2 and 3, your child will begin to understand and follow rules. “Children should be coached on the rules to follow in different situations and places before they encounter them,” Myers said. Rules should reflect your values and be simple to understand.
Be careful not to overwhelm with correction. “Parents should continue to look for opportunities to praise behavior that reflects good judgement and kindness to others,” Myers said. Inevitably, your child will break the rules, and Rundman stressed that “toddlers need to know that they will be loved and accepted, even when they test the boundaries of their relationships.”
Tantrums are to be expected at this age, especially when your child resists the rules. Myers said parents should see them as teachable moments. During a meltdown, “parents should be calming and display empathy for their [children’s] feelings,” he said. Once your child has calmed down, discuss what caused the outburst and how they might cope differently with future frustration.
3. Point out role models
What Myers knows from 30+ years of work as a child psychologist is that young children learn most from observing role models. Rundman too has seen the power of role models and suggested finding older kids who could step into that role for your child. “We know that it’s one thing to have parents telling toddlers or preschoolers ‘do this or that,’” she said. “When they can witness their babysitter or older cousin being kind and sharing, this serves as a powerful example of modeling.”
Ultimately, what you say and do makes a difference! “If parents are calm, kind, respectful, understanding, friendly, and loving, children will emulate them,” Myers said. This is good but also challenging news for parents overwhelmed by the task of instilling morals in their children. The more we act in a way that reflects our own values, the more our kids will too—the same goes for our bouts of bad behavior. Luckily, our own failings can be a teaching opportunity as well. Whenever we don’t get it right, we ask for forgiveness and aim to do better the next day. That’s passing on grace.