In a new study, Holly Recchia, Ph.D., an assistant professor from Concordia University in Canada, discovered that many mothers talk to their kids in ways that help them understand moral missteps.
The study — co-written by Drs. Cecilia Wainryb and Monisha Pasupathi, and graduate student Stacia Bourne, all of the University of Utah — observed 100 pairs of mothers and children 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 mothers about the experience.
When referring to their offspring’s helpful behavior, the mothers focused on the children’s feelings of pride, expressed enthusiasm at their behavior, and reflected on how the experience revealed their children’s positive traits.
With hurtful behavior, 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.
For instance, they focused on the child’s good intentions or noted his or her capacity for repair.
“It’s not that mothers were saying the behavior was acceptable. They were saying it wasn’t, but were also praising their child for giving an apology,” Recchia says.
“They also asked, ‘What can you do next time to make sure that the hurt doesn’t happen?’”
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.
“Sixteen-year-olds don’t need as much help in grasping why they did what they did or the impact,” Recchia says.
“But they still need support in understanding the broader implications for who they are as a person, and some of the complexities involved in navigating relationships.”
Across the board, it’s clear the conversations have an important impact.
Researchers conclude that talks about hurting and helping make distinct and complementary contributions to a child’s understanding of themselves as imperfect but nevertheless moral people, capable of doing good as well as harm.
The study is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Source: Concordia University