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Four: Your Moral Child

What is meant by a moral dimension? This is what common sense has come to call conscience or morality: the internalized sense of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust. In some situations focus is on ethics, while in other situations it is on values. Basically, though, the moral dimension has to do with what is good and right and bad and wrong. In addition, the moral dimension has to do with recognizing and respecting spirituality, your own and that of others. It includes a respect for your physical being, your potentials and capacities, the being and becoming of others and a reverence for the world about you.

Until about the age of four, your children are physical and emotional beings without a significant moral dimension. Around the age of four, though, the moral dimension begins to develop a real influence on their lives.

For your preschooler, the moral dimension is new and somewhat puzzling. It is even more complex for your grade schooler, who soon learns not everyone agrees about right and wrong, and other moral issues. For your adolescent, moral issues continue to multiply, and may be more intense and confusing than at any other time of life. The pressure to produce is high, the opportunities to act in unacceptable ways are many, and self-assurance tends to be neither continuous nor solid. This places a strong responsibility on you to continue moral teaching without preaching, pushing, or prohibiting. Your adolescent develops only through a relationship of trust and acceptance a real sense you have faith in him to do what is right. Let’s look at the development of the moral dimension and consider a few of the most important issues.

The process of communicating with your infant about yes and no begins at birth and continues throughout life. During any period when you are unable to immediately respond to his needs, your infant experiences discomfort. These times can be thought of as no times. At other times, you want him to do things he does not want to do, like putting him back in his crib when he wants you to continue holding him. These times can be called yes times. No times are when your child’s desires or behavior are being limited, and yes times are when you or others try to make your child comply with your wishes.

Although yes times and no times begin at birth, they are minimal until your infant is a year or so old. Until then, he usually gets what he wants. Your toddler, however, can have a real crisis at hand. Let’s look at the crisis of yes and no and how it contains the seeds of your child’s morality and spirituality.

The basic moral tenet is “Do that which is good and refrain from doing that which is bad.” For your infant, almost everything is acceptable and nothing is forbidden. Very gradually her world becomes divided into the acceptable and the unacceptable, the expected and the forbidden, that which is alright and that which is not alright.

Now an interesting thing happens. Through some vaguely understood mechanism, your limits and expectations about no time and yes time become part of your child’s functioning and being. Most probably, your emotions get linked with your child’s thinking and feeling.

Suppose, for example, you expect to give your toddler a hug and kiss before bed, a positive emotional experience. Your toddler comes bounding out of bed one evening and says, “I forgot to kiss you good night.” Kissing you good night, which started out as your idea, has become something your toddler does herself. Or, your toddler tries putting her hand into the fish tank and is negatively disciplined for doing so. Both parental and child emotions are negative. After some experience having the limit set, you observe toddler one evening in front of the fish tank, looking first at the water and then at her hand, clearly debating whether or not to put her hand in the tank. She wants to do so but thinks she should not. Through these two examples, you see yes time and no time have been changed to should and should not.

A slightly different example sees your preschooler playing a board game with you. She moves her man one space farther than she is supposed to, and then says, “Oops, I am on the wrong square. I belong back here.” The idea she should follow the rules of a game (at least with you) is now coming from within her. Later, this generalizes to other adults and children and finally to a wide variety of life situations. Your child’s moral sense and value framework begin with your being sure she experiences yes time and no time and with helping your child work through the crisis of yes and no with love and firmness.

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