The Legal System

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To the legal system, the answer is clear: children have the requisite moral sense--the ability to tell right from wrong--by age 7 to 15, depending on which state they live in, and so can be held responsible for their actions. The Roman Catholic Church pegs it at the early end of that range: children reach the "age of reason" by the tender age of 7, a milestone marked by their first confession of sin and holy communion. Developmental psychologists and other researchers who study the question are not so sure. How old a child must be to both know in his mind and feel in his heart that lying, stealing, cheating, hurting--let alone murdering--are morally wrong is a matter of scientific debate. But the question of when is not nearly so fraught…show more content…
The reason is that empathy, the key emotion supporting a sense of right and wrong, emerges early and, it seems, naturally. Babies cry in response to the wails of other babies, "and not just because it 's a sound that upsets them," notes Carolyn Zahn-Waxler of the National Institute of Mental Health. "They cry more in response to human cries than to other aversive sounds. Somehow, there 's a built-in capacity to respond to the needs of others." Babies as young as 1 try to console others in distress. Toddlers offer their security blanket to a teary-eyed parent or a favorite toy to a distraught sibling, as if understanding that the very object that brings them comfort will do the same to another. Although there seems to be some heritable component to empathy--identical twins, who have identical genes, show more similarity in their response to others ' distress than fraternal twins do--it can be twisted, warped or crushed like a fragile sprout. Empathy means, at heart, the ability to respond to another 's distress in a way more appropriate to her situation than to your own. "The development of empathy has a lot to do with how children experience emotions and how people respond to their emotional states," argues Berkowitz. "It 's not automatic." If a child 's sadness is met with stony silence rather than a hug, if her loneliness is met with continued abandonment,
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