I've been reading many things about educating morality into a child.

This question is great but does not deal with the age issue.

My question is, at what age are children generally most active in developing their moral compass? I'm sure helping your child develop in the right way is something that starts at birth and continues every day that you are both alive. However, I suspect that there is some age at which moral development is more pronounced.

Does anyone know what that magical age is?

  • Varies by culture. Here in the UK it's age 10: gov.uk/age-of-criminal-responsibility In reality of course it'll vary according to the individual child, as well as according to the culture's conception of moral understanding.
    – A E
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 16:54
  • 1
    Psychologists seem to have a variety of points of view on this, but a fairly common interpretation is that many adults never really develop a moral compass that is separate from simply adhering to cultural norms.
    – user9075
    Commented Jun 25, 2017 at 20:30

3 Answers 3


Just like other developmental milestones, there is no "magic age" where a switch is flipped, and your child can suddenly understand moral issues.

Research on this subject with young children has shown that preschool age (3-5 years) is when children first start to understand the distinction between moral issues and social conventions[1]. However, children may still fail to understand nuanced social/moral issues until their teenage years. At this young age, children view morality as an absolute set of rules, rather than a fungible concept, which they begin to develop when they learn abstract thinking in their early teen years.

Children learn morality by example from parents and teachers, and through habits those authority figures instill in them[2]. These habits start forming at birth. A child as young as two may display "moral" behavior, but they likely cannot understand the distinction, and are simply engaging instilled habits.

If your goal is to raise moral children, then, starting from birth, you should model moral behavior around them. Initially, children will view all your behavior in the same light, but they will come to distinguish between morals and social conventions based on observations and habit.

Importantly, those behaviors that you are casual about will come to be seen as social convention rather than morality. For example, if you lie to people in front of your child, but expect that your child will always tell you the truth, then your child will learn truth-telling as a social convention to be obeyed in certain social situation (between family members, but not necessarily outside the family), not a moral one.


Morals starts with habits, and a child starts forming habits the moment they are born.

If they cry and get everything they want, it doesn't necessarily give them a particular moral rule, but it will affect how their morals will end up.

  • 3
    It's true that morals and habits are a lifelong process, but this Answer is rather vague and parent-blaming, not really addressing the OP's question.
    – Acire
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 12:37

I do not know how or when all morals develop, but here is what I know about two.

As soon as you are born you are taught empathy or not to have empathy through your parents. It is important to note, with regards to environmental adaptation, that a child born into a very dangerous and violent society would have trouble surviving and reproducing if it is taught to empathize. It would get taken advantage of and be ridiculed as weak. Likewise, a child with no empathy will have trouble surviving and reproducing in an empathy-based society because it would likely end up removed in one way or another. The parents are a good evolutionary shortcut to what the child needs to survive in the current environment.

3-5 years old is when kids usually learn that someone can lie, and usually start trying it themselves.

A guideline I have learned: If they hold you to a rule, they are now bound by that rule. If you are breaking the rules, they will learn to ignore them just as you do.

Ultimately, kids will learn moral and immoral behavior from their parents, peers, and others that spend time with them. If kids are constantly lying, usually someone is constantly lying to them, or avoiding certain issues in my experience. Ignoring is, in a sense, a form of lying, in that someone knows something is happening but is pretending that they do not. In other words, ignoring the truth. I have experienced this firsthand. Lying children with parents lying to them. When I pointed out the truth I was attacked by someone in my "family". Fun.

Response to Erica's comment under Nelson's answer. Kids, particularly before the age of 5, will 100% be affected by all choices made by the parents that involve them in any way. Of course it will shape them. Parents have full responsibility for their kids' development unless there are extreme circumstances such as full brain dysfunction. If they hang out around the parents, their mind is imprinted with those interactions. If they hang out at daycare, their minds will be imprinted by those interactions. It is well known that brains absorb, and that children are 100% dependent on their parents.

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