Morality Play: Universal Concerns, Not Cultural Values, May Shape Kids' Developing Notions of Right and Wrong

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Morality Play: Universal Concerns, Not Cultural Values, May Shape Kids' Developing Notions of Right and Wrong


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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A 10-year-old Chinese boy listens intently as a visiting researcher tells him a story. It begins pleasantly enough: A boy named Xiaoming goes to a park and meets a child playing with a new ball. But after joining in the fun, Xiaoming decides that he wants to play with the ball alone. So he hits the other child, knocks him down and lunges for the ball. The victim hangs on to the ball and runs home crying.

Meanwhile, Xiaoming's mother witnesses the whole encounter.

Not surprisingly, she is horrified. The researcher describes four possible actions taken by Xiaoming's mother. In one, she reasons with the boy, telling him to remember how it felt to be hit by another child and to imagine how his playmate in the park now feels. In another, she says it's shameful to hit other children and asks why Xiaoming can't behave as well as his friends do. In a third, the mother says that Xiaoming's behavior embarrassed her and makes their family look bad.

For her final go-round, Xiaoming's mother says that she loves him less when he misbehaves. She's so upset about the park incident that she tells the boy to "just go away."

Some of these tactics hit close to home for the real-life Chinese boy. He lives in a mountain village with no computers and few televisions. Adults there teach traditional Chinese values of maintaining harmonious relationships and fulfilling duties to family members. Village parents often talk of the shame that children bring to their families by acting disruptively and of the difficulty in loving a bad son or daughter. Many urban Chinese have gravitated away from these traditional principles over the past 20 years, but not most rural folk.

So it comes as a surprise that the village boy ranks reasoning as the mother's best tactic for setting Xiaoming straight. His explanation: Someone who knocks down other children needs prodding from Mom to realize how it feels to be bullied. That insight will make Xiaoming a better person.

A parent who appeals to family shame, makes unfavorable comparisons with others or threatens to deny love can emotionally burden her child, the boy asserts. In the boy's opinion, Xiaoming "will weep painfully in a corner" after hearing that his mother loves him less for pushing another child. He'll suspect that his mother doesn't really care about him and will be sadder in the future even if he is better behaved.

Culture wars

Other rural Chinese kids, as well as city children in China and Canada, generally agree with the village boy's opinions, says psychologist Charles Helwig of the University of Toronto. His new findings support the idea that universal concerns among children--such as a need to feel in control of one's behavior and disapproval of harming others--shape moral development far more than cultural values do.

"It's remarkable how little cultural variation we have found in developmental patterns of moral reasoning," says Helwig, who presented his results in Park City, Utah, at the recent annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society.

Helwig and like-minded researchers don't assume that kids' universal responses spring from a biologically innate moral-reasoning capacity. Instead, they say, children gradually devise ways of evaluating core family relationships in different situations. Kids judge the fairness and effectiveness of their parents' approaches to punishing misbehavior, for example. These kinds of relationship issues are much the same across all cultures, from Helwig's perspective.

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Children everywhere stew in the same pot of family conflict, with different cultural seasonings added for flavor, in Helwig's view. When parents restrict behaviors that children regard as personal choices, such as what clothes to wear or which friends to hang out with, disputes inevitably arise. …

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