Magazine article Science News

Conscience Grows on Temperamental Grounds

Magazine article Science News

Conscience Grows on Temperamental Grounds

Article excerpt

Pundits and policy makers frequently call on parents to instill morality in their children, often implying that this trait can be learned by rote, like the multiplication tables. A long-term study of preschoolers now indicates that, to the contrary, the moral beacon known as a conscience develops in different ways, with critical contributions from both a child's natural approach to the world and specific parental practices.

A good fit between a youngster's temperament and a mother's child-rearing style fosters the ability to tell right from wrong and to act accordingly, at least from ages 2 to 5 1/2, argues psychologist Grazyna Kochanska of the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

In fearful children, who display considerable caution, shyness, and anxiety, conscience establishes a beachhead if they receive gentle discipline that puts encouragement over threats, Kochanska says. The overall quality of their relationship with their mother does not appear to play a role.

In fearless kids, who exhibit an outgoing, curious approach to the world, conscience takes root in the presence of a cooperative, emotionally secure relationship with their mother. The child will then heed the mother's direct suggestions for improving behavior, Kochanska explains. When these children do not have a close relationship with their mother, they show less conscience.

"As they move through the preschool period, [fearful children] may internalize rules and norms more rapidly than fearless children," the Iowa scientist remarks. "If replicated in another sample, this [research] approach may help to elucidate some of the central questions of socialization."

Kochanska's study, published in the March Developmental Psychology, consists of 43 girls and 47 boys observed at ages 2 1/2, 4, and 5, give or take several months. Children and their mothers were mostly white and came from families with a wide range of incomes.

At the youngest age, temperament was assessed through mothers' reports and the child's responses to an experimenter's suggestions to play with various lab toys. …

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