Conscience Development in Preschoolers

Some children may have delays in developing a knowledge of what's right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable. Parents can help, with this guide.

Conscience development

Many children in foster care have delays in conscience development. A few have no conscience. It is important that parents understand conscience development and identify ways to facilitate growth in this area. During the years between four and six, most children do a number of things of which their parents disapprove. Because children these ages are usually under the supervision of adults, messages both of approval and disapproval can be consistently provided. This is an important requisite for conscience development.

How Conscience Develops

Conscience development evolves over a number of years. While the social emotions associated with attachment are a precursor to conscience, the foundations for conscience development are laid in the toddler years. Toddlers start to understand and incorporate parental messages about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Although children at about age five develop an internal critical voice, most are nine or ten before their sense of right and wrong is strong enough to prevent them from misbehaviors even when they are unlikely to be detected by adults. This is because true guilt requires that the individual be able to mentally reverse an act and consider alternatives, a cognitive skill usually not acquired until age nine or ten.

Three types of conscience problems occur. Some individuals cannot acknowledge guilt because they don’t believe they could experience it and survive. Others have guilt that is able to punish after the fact but never warns ahead. Finally, there is the psychopathic individual who displays a true lack of guilt with neither restraint or remorse. Within the child welfare system, there are a small number of children who fall in this third category, some who fall in the first, and many who fall in the second.

Facilitating Conscience Development

Four and five are at the same time the most truthful and untruthful of all ages. Basically children these ages are very honest, often to the embarrassment of their parents because they lack tact. At the same time, they certainly are not above projecting blame onto others. Although adults frequently demand that their children always tell the truth, in reality, this is not what they usually want. When children say something bluntly truthful, parents frequently say, “You don’t really mean that.” This is especially common when fours or fives honestly express their emotions of the minute about a sibling with a comment such as “I hate you.” Adults seem to forget the transitory nature of feelings. Parents also frequently hold values that are incompatible. When “honesty” and “respect for elders” conflict, which is the child to “select.”

Parents need to clarify their own values if they are to transmit them to their children. Usually adults want children to be honest about their own behaviors. It is usually unwise, however, to ask a preschooler a question such as, “Who took the cookies?” The response is likely to be, “Not me,” despite obvious evidence to the contrary. If the parent then moves to, “Don’t lie to me, I know you did it,” the child feels deceived. The implied message in, “Who took the cookies?” is that the adult does not know the answer. The parent who wants to facilitate conscience development will say, “I see you took some cookies. You know the rule is that you must ask first….” The underlying message is, “I already know what is going on so there is no advantage in lying.”

When parents are trying to encourage honesty, they need to focus on truth telling rather than the rule infraction per se. If consequences are equally severe when the child tells the truth as when he lies, he may interpret the message as, “You get into just as much trouble when you tell the truth. Become a better liar.” When a child breaks a rule that requires more direct discipline, it is not the time to work on honesty. Children, with their magical thinking, frequently believe that parents know everything and “have eyes in the back of their heads.” Parents may choose not to correct these misperceptions as they facilitate conscience development. However, parents need to make positive comments, too. The important thing is for the child to believe that parents already know what is going on and that therefore they might as well be truthful.

Many children in the system spent their preschool years in homes where parents did not provide adequate supervision or clear messages of approval and disapproval. Therefore, the frequency of delayed conscience development should not be surprising. But, because a period of close supervision is critical to conscience development, it becomes apparent why it is difficult to remediate conscience delays once the child is old enough to be away from parental supervision most of the time.

This article is adapted from A Child’s Journey Through Placement (Perspectives Press, 1991).

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