Several weeks ago, as I wrestled my two-year-old into clothes, the weight of my charge as a parent hit me—somewhere between the second time putting his shirt on and the third time putting his pants on. As he ripped off his socks and threw them at the dog, I told him, “You need to listen to Mommy,” to which he replied “M&M?”

I told myself it was the potty training—that could be the only possible explanation for my toddler leveraging good behavior for candy. I gently explained that we do not behave well to be rewarded; we behave well because we should, because it’s right to do so. He nodded and whispered back “M&M please,” because he’s two, and, for the most part, incentivized morality is the only sort of morality he understands.

How will we as parents facilitate the divorce of incentive and morality in the minds of our kids? Many purport that a natural progression of cognitive skills will render him capable of morality. I am lulled to comfort by the logic in this; I feel assured of, if not a seamless transition, at least a naturally occurring one.

A paper published in Science last September reported on a survey aimed at gauging morality in a natural environment—all conducted via text messages, allowing participants to partake in the midst of their daily lives. The intent was to engage in applicable, realistic moral scenarios. Recipients of a good deed became more likely to commit a moral act later that day, whereas those who committed a moral act earlier in the day became more likely to commit an immoral act later. Even though researchers posit that the effect of this sort of contagion is minimal on the pursuit and achievement of morality, ...

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