Moral Development in Context: Associations of Neighborhood and Maternal Discipline With Preschoolers’ Moral Judgments

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Associations among moral judgments, neighborhood risk, and maternal discipline were examined in 118 socioeconomically diverse preschoolers (Mage = 41.84 months, SD = 1.42). Children rated the severity and punishment deserved for 6 prototypical moral transgressions entailing physical and psychological harm and unfairness. They also evaluated 3 criteria for assessing maturity in moral judgments: whether acts were considered wrong regardless of rules and wrong independent of authority, as well as whether moral rules were considered unacceptable to alter (collectively called criterion judgments). Mothers reported on their socioeconomic status, neighborhood characteristics and risk, and consistency of discipline; harsh maternal discipline was observed during a mother–child clean-up task. Structural equation modeling indicated that greater neighborhood risk was associated with less mature criterion judgments and ratings that transgressions were less serious and less deserving of punishment, particularly for children who were disciplined less harshly. Although harsh maternal discipline was associated with children’s ratings of moral transgressions as more serious and deserving of punishment, this effect for severity judgments was more pronounced when mothers were inconsistent versus consistent in applying harsh discipline. Preschoolers who received consistent harsh discipline had less sophisticated moral criterion judgments than their less consistently or harshly disciplined peers. Results demonstrate the importance of social contexts in preschoolers’ developing moral judgments.

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