Moral development of a three-year-old

Updated July 19, 2017

As children develop and grow, so too does their understanding of the world around them and their moral self. By the time children have reached 3 years old, they have already begun to take what they have learnt from their environment and their interaction with others and are testing the boundaries of that understanding. Although much of their focus is on their own physical well being, studies indicate children at this age are beginning to be shaped morally by their development of psychological components such as guilt and social convention.

Morality vs Convention

According to psychologists Larry P Nucci and Elliot Turiel, moral development evolves from factors based upon social relationships rather then a specific cultural, religious or social structure. Although the line between morality (the distinction between right and wrong) and convention (shared social understanding) sometimes runs close, children as young as 3 can still view a specific moral transgressions as wrong, whereas a social misstep might be overlooked.


Children look to their surrounding social world for guidance as to what is morally acceptable behaviour and what is not. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, author of the 1932 book "The Moral Judgment of the Child," believed that preschool children disregard rules and simply play for physical and emotional enjoyment. He determined that children under the age of 10 were in a stage of development he called moral realism. In the early parts of this stage, the child would base whether or not their actions were good or bad by the amount of damage caused, not by the intentions of the act.


The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, whose work expanded on Piaget, found that children 3 years old are in a premoral or preconventional stage of development. Their focus is primarily on the self and they are typically motivated by the anticipation of pleasure or the avoidance of physical punishment.

At age 3, children will often have their actions motivated by either the gain of a reward, or to avoid being punished. In stage 1 of Kohlberg's theory, the moral development of children at this age will begin to move into avoidance of rule breaking that will bring about punishment. Children will also display at this age an obedience based upon their understanding of the importance of obedience itself, rather then why the rule is in place.


Danish-German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who developed the eight psychosocial stages, believed that children begin wanting to choose for themselves in a stage he calls Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt. His work showed that children find autonomy when the parents introduce a basic level of freedom and refrain from using force or shame. According to Erikson, sometime around 3 years old, a child will begin to use play, in the stage he called Initiative versus Guilt, to explore and experiment with concepts of the person that they may want to become. Erikson noted that a parent who pressures a high level of self-control on the child may incite the developing youth to become overly insecure with their image of the self.

The Roll of Guilt in Moral Development

Children between ages 2 to 3 will begin to show signs of guilt caused by their own bad behaviour. According to a study by Razyna Kochanska, Jami N. Gross, Mei-Hua Lin and Kate E. Nichols from the University of Iowa, there is a positive correlation between guilt and moral development in children from 18 to 56 months old. According to their study, which watched the behaviour of children who had believed they had broken something valuable, children who displayed more signs of guilt were also more likely to avoid violating breaking rules of conduct. The study also showed that girls typically displayed more guilt at this age then boys, and children whose parents utilised a power-assertive discipline reported less guilt.

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About the Author

Jesse Horn has been writing professionally since 2007. His work has appeared in "Az Tourist News" and "The Sports Zone" magazine. Horn is currently the executive editor for the "Mogollon Connection" newspaper in the White Mountains of Arizona, and is working to get his associate's degree through Northland Pioneer College.