It's easy to know when my Little One has had enough of amusing herself after breakfast while I get a bit of work done: She'll walk over to my chair, look me in the eye, and hit my arm. She knows that hitting is wrong, it's plain from the defiant look on her face. But she does it anyway.
The vast majority of the time, she's a good, gentle kid. But she is still a kid. And this moral compass thing apparently takes a while to develop. According to an NPR report this morning, morality begins to develop as early as age 2, though it doesn't solidify for years. Essentially, as the report explains, the inner struggle at this age is one between the "happy victimizer effect"--it feels good when I get the toy that I want by taking it from you--and empathy--it feels bad when someone takes away a toy from me, so if I take away a toy from you, I will make you feel bad. Even at the young age of 4, children exhibit knowledge of the difference between moral rules and social rules, and they seem to grasp the more profound nature of moral rules.
For instance, when a class of preschoolers was asked if there were no rule against hitting in their school, would it then be alright for them to hit other children. The kids said no, because hitting hurts, and hurting others isn't OK.
Psychologist Judy Smetana explains that "the task of a young child's development is to coordinate the perspectives of the victim and the transgressor, and weight it to the way the victim feels."
Listen to the whole report here.
I'd better go, before I get another whack in the arm.