Children Learn to Feel Good About Following Rules

Armen Hareyan's picture

Children and Morals

In research that has implications for how children develop morals, a UC Davis psychologist has found that youngsters increasingly recognize that they can feel good by following the rules and considering possible consequences.

The study, published in the May/June journal Child Development by Kristin Lagattuta, found that between the ages of 4 and 7, children increasingly predict that people feel negative or mixed emotions when they break a rule and feel positive or mixed emotions when they follow a rule.

In fact, the study found children believed that people feel happiest exhibiting willpower when they follow a rule that they remembered by themselves. Lagattuta said this particular understanding should help parents boost their children's willingness to comply with rules.

The more that the youngsters focused on the importance of rules and consequences when they explained their emotions during the study, the more often they attached negative emotions to people who break rules and positive emotions to people who follow rules.


By age 7, children have increased their focus on the emotional impact of rules and the future, Lagattuta said. This coincides with 7-year-olds more often recognizing that acts of willpower can make a person feel good (despite not getting what they wanted) and that breaking the rules can lead to negative emotions (despite getting what they did want).

"These findings have implications for research on theory of mind and moral reasoning, as well as practical applications for educators and parents," Lagattuta said.


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