The study - co-written by Cecilia Wainryb, Stacia Bourne and Monisha Pasupathi from the University of Utah - observed 100 pairs of mothers and children were aged seven, 11 or 16. Each child was asked to describe one incident where they had helped a friend, and one incident where they had hurt a friend, and subsequently spoke to their mums about the experience.
When referring to their offspring's helpful behaviour, the mothers focused on the children's feelings of pride, expressed enthusiasm at their behaviour, and reflected on how the experience revealed their children's positive traits.
With hurtful behaviour, the conversations were a bit more delicate, in that the mothers found ways to acknowledge the harm while also emphasizing that it didn't define their children.
The study also shows that the nature of this maternal role develops along with the children, as parents evolve from gentle teachers for youngsters to sounding boards for teenagers.
The mothers prompted younger children more often and focused more on the concrete details of the event. In contrast, teenagers took more ownership of the conversations, and the topics themselves also changed.
The new study has been published in journal Developmental Psychology.