Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Children's Moral Self-Concept: The Role of Aggression and Parent-Child Relationships

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Children's Moral Self-Concept: The Role of Aggression and Parent-Child Relationships

Article excerpt

This study examined the role of aggressiveness and parenting in the development of children's moral self-concept. Participants were 198 elementary school children and their parents (M = 8.65 years, SD = 2.44). Participants completed a structured moral self puppet interview and a questionnaire about their relationship to parents. Parents completed a questionnaire measuring their children's aggressiveness. Results indicated that children who were more aggressive scored significantly lower on the moral self than did less aggressive children. Positive parent-child relationships predicted higher scores on children's moral selves. Finally, negative parent-child interaction moderated the effect of aggression, with negative associations between aggression and children's moral self exacerbated at high levels of negative parent-child interaction, and attenuated at lower levels. This study elucidates the importance of aggression and parenting in accounting for differences in children's moral self.

The concept of the moral self or moral identity has received considerable attention in more recent research on moral development (for an overview, see Hardy & Carlo, 2011). The extent to which individuals integrate moral values into their self or identity has been shown to be of great importance for everyday moral functioning (e.g., Hardy & Carlo, 2005). It was found to be associated with prosocial and antisocial behavior (Johnston & Krettenauer, 2011), sustained moral commitment (Colby & Damon, 1992), moral emotions (Krettenauer, 2011), and community involvement (Pratt, Hunsberger, Pancer, & Alisat, 2003), as well as concerns for out-group members (e.g., Hardy, Bhattacharjee, Reed, & Aquino, 2010). Among children, the moral self has been demonstrated to predict future social competence and adaptive behavior. Children with a stronger moral self at 67 months were rated as highly competent, prosocial, and exhibiting fewer antisocial problems at 80 months by their teachers and parents (Kochanska, Koenig, Barry, Kim, & Yoon, 2010).

While most of the research on the development of the moral self has dealt either with toddlers and preschoolers or with adolescents (here scholars refer to the concept of moral identity),1 research that focuses on the devel- opment of the moral self in middle childhood is very rare. As Nucci (2004) noted, research on the moral self has largely neglected the issue of developmental continuity (see also Krettenauer, 2013b). From a developmental perspective, it seems imperative to study the moral self in middle childhood to better understand how the moral self of young children is linked to later developmental achievements, such as moral identity formation in adolescence. There surely is a large body of research addressing the development of moral reasoning in middle childhood. However, moral reasoning and moral motivation have been shown to follow different developmental trajectories (Nunner-Winkler, 2007). The concept of the moral self refers primarily to motivational processes (Krettenauer, 2013a). Thus, research dealing with moral reasoning development in middle childhood does not speak to the question how the moral self develops in this age period.

Research based on Harter's Self-Perception Profile (Harter, 1985), which includes a subscale relating to behavioral conduct, shows that 8-year-old children's self-perceptions regarding behavioral conduct are well differentiated from other dimensions of their self-concept, such as social acceptance and scholastic achievement. However, in Harter's measure, behavioral conduct is very broadly defined ("act as is expected" and "don't do things they shouldn't do") and does not specifically deal with harm avoidance and helping others as core aspects of morality. Krettenauer, Campbell, and Hertz (2013) demonstrated that children as young as age 5 years could consistently identify themselves as having certain moral behavioral preferences. …

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