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How to Explain to a Child What is Bad and What is Worse

Moral leadership comes naturally, if not easily, to most parents. Teaching the difference between good and bad isn’t as easy as reading The Lorax, but it isn’t much more complicated than modeling behavior and implementing a time-out plan. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the world is not always good or bad and right and wrong. Sometimes it’s bad and worse or wronger and more wrongerer. A parent can either let their kid learn those lessons by allowing them to make painful mistakes, or by stepping beyond Seussian morality tales and providing their kids with a guided tour of the gray area.

It’s important to note there is a growing body of research that suggests children have a basic moral understanding by the time they turn one. This understanding can be demonstrated using a fairly standard experiment. Babies are asked to make a choice between a helper character or a hinderer character after watching both assist or impede the progress of someone trying to get up a hill. Overwhelmingly, babies choose the helper. They understand the idea of social good–at least in the context of slopes. As kids grow, parents augment this basic binary understanding and add more explicit categories into the good and bad. Good: saying thank you, sharing. Bad: lying, stealing. But what they often fail to teach explicitly is that sometimes a kid might have to choose to do something bad like not helping, in order to avoid something worse.

Michael Sabbeth, retired trial lawyer, ethicist, and author of The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values, spent years teaching children the gray areas that parents didn’t. “The concept that things are not always black and white is pretty banal,” Sabbeth says. “Kids understand that.” But he stresses that what they sometimes don’t understand is that morality can be situational and based on facts. “As the facts change, the morality changes.”


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