Help! My Child Doesn’t Seem to Know Right From Wrong!

I have gotten several questions from local mothers lately regarding their (usually four year old) lying or stealing…..And the mothers are rather frantic about this, and are convinced their children are going to grow up to be juvenile delinquents.

First of all, let’s take a brief peek back at the four-year-old, (because it usually is a four-year old):

Secondly, let’s veer to what Steiner says for a moment.  In his lectures in the book, “Soul Economy”, he is very specific and clear that the child can only start to distinguish between right and wrong starting somewhere around five years of age.  Traditional childhood development resources such as The Gesell Institute states that a child will “blame” every one else for what happens when they do something “wrong” – ie, “You made me do that!”  In the Gesell Institute book “Your Seven-Year-Old” remarks, “Seven is definitely concerned about the wrongness of lying and cheating, especially in others.  He is somewhat less likely to blame others for his misdeeds than earlier, but is quick to tatttle about any breach of the ethical code on the part of his parents and friends.  If he himself missteps, he is very ready with an alibi:  “I didn’t mean to,”  “I forgot,”  “I was just going to do it,”  “That’s what I meant.”  So what are you asking of your four-year-old?

From  a Waldorf perspective we believe that the child under the age of 7 doesn’t have that individual consciousness yet, that a young child is in an imitative phase and that a young child is also in a phase of being physically in their bodies.  In an example to illustrate this, Steiner spoke in one of his lectures about distraught parents who came to him because their under seven child was “stealing” money from a place where they normally stored it in the house.  Steiner pointed out that the child had seen the mother take money from this place to pay for things, and that the child was simply imitating the mother.  The Gesell Institute points out that even a seven-year-old is likely to pick up and play with whatever catches their eye – yes, a seven-year-old!

So here we go back to the question I pose nearly every post:  Are you expecting your four-year-old to act like a ten-year-old?  You cannot parent an under 7 child with verbal directives from a chair.  Do not “ask” your four-year-old to do something, leave the room, come back and ask”, “Why didn’t you do why I asked?”  They are going to say, “I did!”  This is NORMAL from a developmental perspective.

The other issue is to know and understand when to make a BIG deal over things and when not to – yes, we need to guide behavior.  But, we probably need to guide less of this then you think, at least in words.   We tend as parents to be oh-so-serious about these issues in the three, four year –old.  If you “Head Talk” to your under six child about lying, stealing, etc it will not make much of an impact at all because of the above things we mentioned developmentally – if you are physically there to help your child follow through with what you ask, if you do not draw so much individual consciousness to them at such an early age, if you remember normal childhood development, then your physical presence will hold the space and decrease these behaviors.

Your child is learning how to be a moral person in their early childhood and needs your strong, and warm physical presence in the Early Years.  In Waldorf, we would work with this through less words, and more doing.   More physical presence, more being there with the child, more being present.  And knowing what to make a big deal of and knowing when to clean up the mess with the child and  not talk it to death!  

Please re-think your overly verbal and head-oriented approach to the child in the younger years as they develop their ethics and sense of morality.  Reassure your child they are loved no matter what behavior that they try on, but SHOW them that you are the adult in this situation, you have the control, and you can help them by being there.

In Peace,


13 thoughts on “Help! My Child Doesn’t Seem to Know Right From Wrong!

  1. Hi Carrie,

    Thanks for this excellent post. This reminds me of a time when I taught pre-school aged children at a University childcare centre. We were working on our garden and the children were given the opportunity to use a spade. One of the children who I will refer to as P (age 4) was using it while another child (herein called L who was also 4) was watching. She noted that P was not using the spade the way she was taught at home. The teacher noted to L “P can use it anyway she likes” . The teacher briefly left the gathering of children and P then said to L in a mimicking tone “Nya nya, I can use it anyway I want”. At this point, L took the spade from P and hit her with it! P started wailing and the teacher ran after L. She took L by the arm and sternly said “I am so disappointed in how you hit P with the spade! Why did you do that?” L then responded very flustered “but you told me that I can use the spade any way I want to!”
    This situation, had it been handled differently, may not have led to injury. I think in this incident, the teacher did learn a powerful lesson about the use of words.

  2. Thank you for this post! It couldn’t come at a better time. I have a 4 year old and an 17 month old-both are boys and I read the post laughing the whole just thinking “oh my goodness this is exactly what he does”. It just explains SOOO MUCH. I’m filled with gratitude to you Carrie.

  3. Sigh. My 6 1/2 year old son is acting like a four-year-old, evidently! He has a hard time with being responsible for his own actions, always blaming everyone else for everything. I’m trying to be very gentle about it, not talking overly much (always a challenge for me) and being very supportive. I get the sense that he’s afraid we’ll get mad at him for doing something wrong, so he’s doing everything he can think of to avoid that, including disavowing what we know perfectly well he has done.

    Hmmm…maybe he needs to hear some stories about young knights who learn to be honorable and brave.

    • Did you read the part in blod about what the “Your Seven Year Old” book says – that the seven year old is always ready with an alibi, excuse, etc , is a bit less likely to blame others (but still does)….So, sounds to me like your guy is acting, well,….normal 🙂 As you know, from an anthropospohical point of view, he really doesn’t have the where with all to even take responsbility for all of it yet, and from a traditional viewpoint, things like memory are short even at age seven (which makes sense to Waldorf people as we know memory starts to come in then….) and seven year olds need very short instructions, usually with you standing there LOL.
      So, sounds like you are handling it all well!! 🙂
      Hope that helps and provides you some encouragement!

  4. Oh yes, we hear “I didn’t mean to” a lot around here! I keep meaning to go back and read some of your recent posts about 6/7 yos, as I know they will be really helpful.

    It’s always a struggle for me to honor the Waldorf picture of the stages of development vs. the timing of development I observe in my own children. For example, my son is pretty “awake”, nerve-sense oriented. He already displays a fairly good memory. Now, I don’t want to overburden that aspect of him, yet I also want to work with where he is. I think he’s ready to understand that there are consequences for his actions, whether he “means” them or not, but I also don’t want to make an overly big deal of it.

    Balance…it’s difficult!

    • Yes, he may have a good developed memory…..he may be reasonable or have decent reasoning abilities for his age as well. I have heard lots of moms mention that in relation to an “advanced” six or seven year old, but my only thought would be that those things do not equate into the emotional maturity to really understand the consequences of actions and to take responsbility when there is a mistake. Also, with boys I think a big thing is also their hearing. It is my understanding that the way a boy develops and grows can sometimes literally close off portion of the ear canal so they do not hear as well…which doesn’t always help in discipline matters 🙂
      So, I think you are so wise and doing such a great job to think balance, and being gentle because sincerely six, seven and eight are still pretty darned little.
      I think there are at least four posts specificially on the six year old, three on the seven year old and probably more that fall under the whole “Six/Seven Year Transformation” category.
      Hope that all helps, sounds like you are doing well thinking about it all! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Discipline for the Four-Year-Old « The Parenting Passageway

  6. Hi Carrie,

    Firstly, thankyou so much for your insightful website. I am really enjoying reading your thoughts.
    I have a question about stealing in a 7 1/2 year old. My son has been caught in the possesion of money he has taken from our kitchen bench, and also my purse – 5 or 6 times now. He has been quick to own up to it when asked about where he got the money from. He is obviously sneaky about taking the money, but then it sits on his table – or somewhere not so hidden.
    I am at a loss as to what to do.
    When i ask him what he wants the money for – he says “to buy things/toys”.
    I have made up a a”once upon a time” story about a boy who always wanted more “things”, he was eventually rich in possessions, but not happy, still bored, and poor in imagination. (we’ll see if it works). I’m trying the Healing Story here.
    I have told him that he is a good boy and i always love him, but that behaviour is not ok, and i’m upset about him doing it.

    I worry that i have head talked too much, after many times of not head talking the behaviour. Help! What do i do next???

    Thanks for any help you can offer…


    • Hi Kylie,
      Here are a bunch of jumbled thoughts off the top of my head; take what resonates with you because you are the expert on your son!
      What is the restitution part of this? What happends once he returns the money to you? Does he apologize? Does he have to do work in the form of chores to pay off/back the money (even if he gives it back, this may still be an idea to do something concrete to tie in the idea that we work for money! When we take money, we have to work!) Does he get an allowance, what is the system in your house regarding chores/allowance/extra activities to make money…Sounds like he would like to run a lemonade stand to make some money for the things he would like to buy! Also, prevention on your part — lock up your purse and move the money from the kitchen bench for now. What one on one time does he get with you, and more importantly for a seven and a half year old boy, with an adult male who can spend one on one time with him each week and start to model for him about being a good man? ….Stories are wonderful, but at 7 and a half, you are also heading into the land of more directness. His actions do matter. Restitution is so important from an early age on….

      Hope some of those ideas stimulate thoughts for you.

      Many blessings,

  7. interesting read…. what do you think of my child. aged 5 1/2 and i too, think he has no idea about right from wrong.
    at 2 he gauged his twin sister in the face so she was scared for 2 years + recently, he squeezed the first then 2 months later another mouse to death. we put that down to he didnt know his strenght…. lately he spun a mouse around by the tail (this was the 1st day he was allowed to go near/touch the mice) and the mouse hit its head on the wall and died. at this stage, we took him to a child psycologist who said basically he was just naughty, to watch him and that that sort of thing was acceptable in 5 year olds but not in 10 year olds. then tonight he admited to using sizzors to scratch a 40 cm scratch on our new large digital tv. on asking why, he said…. well, you left the sizzors out. what are your oppinions. i am worried about him .

    • Chantal, What a difficult situation, and very hard to say from here without knowing your son in person what is going on. Donna Simmons has a post here about the death of a pet as caused by children: This post is about a three year old and a bunny, but in it she suggests that this behavior can occur up until age 7 or 8. I think the main thing would be prevention and lots of modeling as to the right way to treat animals and anything smaller or weaker than himself as he is so strong, really appealing to how strong and smart he is through stories and tales of heroes and the prince who overcomes challenges by being kind to animals – Hut in the Forest and The Queen Bee come to mind, to really work deeply with those stories (they are Grimm’s fairy tales). I know you are worried, so I think keeping him very close to you at all times and giving him lots of outlets for his physicality would be important. I think fathers can play an important role in this situation at all, starting to learn and model from Daddy that men are kind and protect the weak. If you search “boys” in the search engine, there should be quite a few posts dealing with boys and discipline.
      Many, many blessings, and keep me posted – the Parenting Passageway email is on the “About” page.
      Many blessings,

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