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Raising a Good-Hearted Child

My daughter was born looking like an angel. However, she's not an angel. She hits the dog and runs amok. "Dirt, dirt, dirt!" she screams, pointing to my potted dahlias -- and, before I can intervene, scoops some of the soil into her palm, where it momentarily mounds like the richest of coffee grounds before she flings it across the room. This is my daughter. She's not a good girl, or a bad one. She is, simply, a 20-month-old girl with a whole host of impulses that I, as a parent, must help shape so that she emerges, a second sort of birth, into a moral person.

Morality isn't inborn. So many things are -- the impulse to smile, the instinct to cry -- but morality, the conscious, cultivated knowledge of right from wrong, good from bad, comes only with direct intervention or education.

Researchers studying the adult brain have located the biological bases of moral thinking at least tentatively in the frontal lobes, right behind the forehead. Damage to this area, by stroke or other accident, can render an adult human beastlike. In infancy and early childhood, the frontal lobes are naturally underdeveloped. The axons and dendrites have just barely begun the complex branching that transmits moral messages in a rat-tat-tat of electrical signals. My friend Karen has a 3-year-old son, Zohar, which means "splendor" in Hebrew. He does what he can to defy his name. The other day, he and his mother were over, and before we could say lickety-split, Zohar had reached out and smacked my daughter.

"No!" Karen shrieked, jumping up from the couch. I grabbed Clara, who had broken into a full-throated wail. Karen grabbed Zohar, who, probably scared by his mother's scream and his own wayward impulses, continued to windmill his arms, striking out at whatever he could. Karen and I looked at each other across our howling kids.

"Now what are we supposed to do?" she said. "Is he old enough for a time-out? I'd think he's old enough to know that it's wrong to hurt someone." Karen tried a time-out for a few minutes, and when Zohar told us afterward, "I know it's bad to hit," it seems he could well comprehend right from wrong.

Moral milestones may be the hardest to figure. Sue Resnick of Sharon, Massachusetts, mother of Max, 4, and Carrie, 7, says, "Nothing confuses me as much as how to teach my kids values, helping them to be people who believe in and act in good ways. The world needs people who possess love, honesty, and compassion, but these concepts are tricky to teach."

How, exactly, do parents impart a moral education to their children? While the strategies are as diverse as the moms and dads who use them, there are some tried-and-true tricks of the trade: role modeling, helping your child identify her emotions, storytelling, praise, and, last but not least, just talking.

Lauren Slater is the author of Love Works Like This: Moving From One Kind of Life to Another.