Golden Rule Develops Early But Doesn't Come Easily A 2-year-old, it turns out, knows the difference between right and wrong. And by age 4, children are getting the grasp of empathy. While the seeds of morality may be at least partially built into our genetic makeup, for children, developing a moral sense can still be a battle of impulses.
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Golden Rule Develops Early But Doesn't Come Easily

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Golden Rule Develops Early But Doesn't Come Easily

Golden Rule Develops Early But Doesn't Come Easily

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Okay, most of us would agree that it is wrong to hurt somebody else. But when and how do we learn that? To help us explore that question, we turn to our friends at Radio Lab.

(Soundbite of music)

JAD ABUMRAD: Hello there, Steve.


INSKEEP: These are the two guys behind Radio Lab: WNYC's Jad Abumrad - he's the young sounding guy - and NPR's Robert Krulwich, the other guy.

KRULWICH: The older one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Before we get started, gentlemen. Remind people what Radio Lab is.

KRULWICH: Radio Lab is a place where we explore big ideas that make us rethink ourselves…

ABUMRAD: And the whole world around us.

KRULWICH: And this time, we're thinking about when kids develop a moral sense, meaning of right and wrong and caring…

ABUMRAD: Caring.

KRULWICH: Yeah. To investigate this question, who are we going to talk to, Jad?

ABUMRAD: Dr. Judi Smetana. She's a psychology professor from the University of Rochester.

Dr. JUDI SMETANA (Psychologist, University of Rochester): Kids clearly know more than they can say. It's clear from both observations and anecdotes that children really are beginning to develop a moral sense in the second year of life. Of course, that experience increases as they move into the threes, but they're also are beginning to form a much more complex or developed understanding of moral rules which they can share with us a little bit in our interviews.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Interviewer): Now who makes the rules at your school?

Unidentified Child (Interviewee): My teacher.

ABUMRAD: When you do the interviews with kids directly, what kind of questions are you asking them?

Unidentified Man: Can they change the rules if they want to?

Unidentified Child: They're the teachers. They can do whatever they want.

Dr. SMETANA: Well, we try to ask them, really, some very complex ideas in a simple form.

Unidentified Man: Is there a rule about hitting at your school?

Unidentified Child: Yes.

Dr. SMETANA: Such as would it be okay to hit if your teacher didn't see you? Or would it be okay to hit if there was no rule about it in your school?

Unidentified Man: Suppose the teacher at school agree that they won't have any rule about hitting at school. There was no rule anymore. Then would it be okay for a boy to hit another kid hard?

Unidentified Child: No.

Unidentified Man: No? How come?

Unidentified Child: Because that would make somebody feel bad.

Unidentified Man: It would. What's wrong with hitting somebody, anyway?

Unidentified Child: Because it's made out of the skin - the skin, because their skin can get cut or can get a bruise…

Dr. SMETANA: And what we found is that young children - beginning at about three, but really much more reliably by age four - will say that things like hitting or hurting or teasing would be wrong, even if the teacher didn't see them or didn't have a rule, whereas other things like, you know, sitting in the circle in circle time…

Unidentified Man: Is there a rule at your school about sitting down while you eat your lunch?

Unidentified Child: Yes.

Dr. SMETANA: …would be okay if there was no rule about it.

Unidentified Man: Is that a rule the teacher could change?

Unidentified Child: Yes. If she says, okay, you could stand up, you could do that. You have to listen to your teacher.

Dr. SMETANA: So it's clear that the moral universe begins very early for young children.

KRULWICH: But, of course, this moral universe doesn't just appear. It develops slowly over time. We visited a play group in Malvern, Long Island.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hello.

(Soundbite of child crying)

Unidentified Woman #1: Faye, who's hosting today, got this idea to start a playgroup. And all of our kids are out in the living room playing together as they usually do, trying not to kill each other.

(Soundbite of child crying)

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm finding the threes a little bit easier on Dana(ph) than the twos, because my son has no fear. We call him the Red Tornado.

Hey there, what's your name?

ALEX: Alex.

Unidentified Woman #2: Once he turned three…

How old are you?

ALEX: Three.

Unidentified Woman #2: I find that we're able to explain things to him easier.

ABUMRAD: What kind of things? Like rules?

Unidentified Woman #2: Rules. Oh, yeah. Rules.

Unidentified Woman #1: Can you tell me what the rules are? You're nodding yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: If you ask him the rules of house, he says no hitting, no pushing, no banging heads.

ALEX: No hitting, no pushing, no banging heads.

Unidentified Woman #2: Those are the rules,

Unidentified Woman #1: He knows no pushing, no hitting and what's the other one?

ALEX: No banging heads.

Unidentified Woman #1: No banging heads?

Unidentified Woman #2: He doesn't always follow them, though. Alex, do it gentle.

(Soundbite of child crying)

Dr. SMETANA: I mean, one of the things that we see is that young children can tell you that things are wrong, that it's wrong to hit because it hurts. It's wrong to take toys. At the same time, kids do take other kids' toys. They do hit each other, and you have to wonder why is it if they know it's wrong, why are they doing this?

ABUMRAD: Well, 'cause it feels good, right?

Dr. SMETANA: Yeah, it feels good because they got what they wanted.

(Soundbite of banging, music)

Dr. SMETANA: Some researchers have called that the happy victimizer effect.

(Soundbite of music)

ABUMRAD: So to hit another kid or to take another kid's toys feels good, but to have your toys taken by another kid feels bad. Is that sort of the basic information that a child uses to start forming their moral universe?

Dr. SMETANA: Right. The task of a young child's development is to be able to coordinate those two perspectives, that of the victim and that of the transgressor and kind of weight it toward the way that the victim feels.

ABUMRAD: So what we're really talking about is like happy victimizer versus empathy?

Dr. SMETANA: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: So gentlemen, it's a kind of battle inside the kid between one side and the other?



KRULWICH: I think so. And as a parent, if you're watching that struggle and you're waiting for your kid to develop a sense of goodness, it's going to be a long wait.

INSKEEP: Uh, yeah.

KRULWICH: (unintelligible)

Dr. SMETANA: I happen to be going to school early one day - I'm never early -and they have an observation closet where you can watch the classroom. And I'd not ever observed, you know, I'm never early, so I went into the closet. And at that moment, I saw Jack tackle his best friend, drop behind a bookcase, the rest of the classroom gather around, then I saw Jack stand up and just look down with this very startled, frightened look on his face. And then I saw his friend stand up with his lip bleeding. And I thought, I can't believe I'm watching this happen. The only time I've ever watched my son through the window at school and I think he just gave someone a bloody lip. He was mortified by the whole thing. He was mortified, I think scared about his own actions.

JACK: Jack, and I'm four.

Dr. SMETANA: Jack had to see the consequences of his own actions on his own terms.

JACK: (Singing) Seeds in the dark, grow, grow, grow. Seeds in the dark, grow, grow, grow. Help me with my garden.

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, is this an appropriate moment to recall when I was a kid and my brother hit me in the nose, gave me a bloody nose and then told our mom, it was an accident?

KRULWICH: Did you then tell…

ABUMRAD: It probably made you who you are today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Just repeating that incident over and over again. I mean, lots of people have wanted to hit me in the nose over the years.

KRULWICH: And you'll likely go…

(Singing) (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, thanks for coming by once again.

KRULWICH: You're welcome.

ABUMRAD: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: That's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radio Lab, a production of WNYC - which you can explore at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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