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'Don't hit your brother' -- moms are strictest on their infants' moral wrongdoing

October 11, 2016

Research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology shows that mothers typically respond more strongly to any "moral" faults by their infants - that is, which risk hurting other people or pets - than to any other type of misbehavior. Even misbehavior that puts the infant herself, but no-one else, at potentially risk, for example running down the stairs, is generally disciplined less strongly by moms than moral wrongdoing. Conversely, infants are more ready to obey, and less likely to protest against, their mother's prohibitions on moral faults than prohibitions on other types of misbehavior. These results indicate that mothers tend to treat moral wrongdoing as a special, more serious type of misbehavior, regardless of the potential harm.

"Mothers were more insistent on the moral prohibition against harming others than prohibitions against doing something dangerous or creating mess or inconvenience, as shown by their greater use of physical interventions and direct commands in response to moral transgressions," says the author Audun Dahl, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Dahl and coworkers observed interactions between 26 mothers, their 14-month infant girls or boys, and an older sibling below 8 years of age during 2.5-hour-long home visits, and repeated the visits 5 and 10 months later. Mothers were told to behave naturally, as the purpose was to study the everyday experience of infants. The observers scored each instance of infant naughty behavior, distinguishing between moral, "prudential" (dangerous to the infant herself, but to no-one else) and "pragmatic" faults (i.e. creating mess or inconvenience, but not harmful to the infant or anyone else). They also scored the mother's response to each behavior, for example physical restraint; commands; distracting the infant from the unwanted behavior; softening, such as saying "I know you want to play with my phone" to acknowledge the infant's wish, comforting him or her, or using of terms of endearment; compromising on an earlier prohibition; or explaining why the infant's behavior was wrong. Other variables were the infant's response, for example compliance with their mother's instructions, protest, or expressing negative emotions, and the seriousness of the actual or potential consequences of the behavior.

The results show that mothers consistently respond with high-intensity interventions such as physical restraint and commands, and not with gentler interventions, whenever their infants showed moral misbehavior. In contrast, mothers were more likely respond to pragmatic or prudential transgressions with low-intensity interventions, especially distraction, softening or compromising. Furthermore, infants were significantly more likely to comply immediately with their mother's commands when their original transgression had been moral, and less likely to protest verbally. Importantly, the greater insistence of mothers on moral rules couldn't be attributed to moral transgressions having more severe potential consequences, since the observed prudential misbehaviors was on average more harmful - for example, putting the infant at risk of falling or choking.

Dahl concludes that mothers tend to treat the moral imperative to avoid harm to others as fundamentally different -- more important to communicate and less open to negotiation -- from prudential and pragmatic rules.

"Through their more insistent interventions on moral misbehavior, mothers appear to help their children make this distinction as well," says Dahl. "Still, how parents react to misbehaviors is only one of many factors in early moral development. So an important question for future research is how precisely young children make use of their mother's reactions, along with other experiences, to gradually develop their own notions of right and wrong," says Dahl.


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