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, revealed a new research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
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.
‘Mothers 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.’
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 five 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.
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
"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.