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Chapter: Psychology: Development

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Conscience and Moral Feeling - Socioemotional Development in Infancy and Childhood

One way to describe what’s missing from Kohlberg’s theory is any discussion of con-science—the desire to act in a moral manner, and a feeling of guilt when one does not act morally.

CONSCIENCE AND MORAL FEELING

 

One way to describe what’s missing from Kohlberg’s theory is any discussion of con-science—the desire to act in a moral manner, and a feeling of guilt when one does not act morally. A conscience can lead someone away from bad actions (Kochanska, 1993, 2002) and toward good actions (Eisenberg, 1986, 2000), but how does a conscience emerge? One proposal is that the child learns to feel guilty about bad acts by being rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones.

 

This emphasis on reward and punishment would make sense according to the law of effect. It would also make sense on other grounds. Freud argued, for exam-ple, that the threat of punishment creates anxiety in the child, and the anxiety then becomes a powerful source of “self-punishment” whenever the child approaches—or even thinks about—a forbidden action .

 

However, the data on the effects of physical punishment challenge these ideas. If punishment leads a child to avoid bad actions, one might think that stronger, harsher punishments would lead to more avoidance. This prediction turns out to be not only false but exactly backward. Evidence suggests that, in fact, a sense of conscience is less likely to emerge in children whose parents rely on severe or harsh discipline. For exam-ple, the children of power-asserting (authoritarian) parents are more likely to cheat for a prize when they think no one is looking, and less likely to feel guilt about their mis-deeds or to confess them when confronted (M. L. Hoffman, 1970).

 

Likewise, spanking (and other forms of physical punishment) seems to lead to decreased internalization of a moral code (Gershoff, 2002; Kazdin & Benjet, 2003), the opposite of what we would expect if physical punishments facilitate moral develop-ment. If severe physical punishment is not the key to developing a moral sense, what is? The answer lies in the child’s relationship with her parents. As we have seen, young infants are intensely interested in social contact and interaction, and soon become very sensitive to an adult’s signs of approval or disapproval. For some children, the disap-proval itself serves as a punishment, and hence a source of anxiety.

 

For most children, though, the disapproval is upsetting because it undermines a social relationship, and so the child tries to avoid the disapproval in order to preserve the relationship. To gain approval, the child also does what he can to imitate the par-ent’s behavior and motivations and to adopt the parent’s beliefs. Consistent with this perspective, the better the quality of the parent-child relationship, the faster the child’s progress in developing a conscience (Kochanska, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 2000). More specifically, conscience development seems to be fostered by a relationship in which the child and adult are each responsive to the other’s status and needs. By the same logic, secure attachment is associated with conscience development (Kochanska, 1995; Kochanska, Aksan, Knaack, & Rhines, 2004).

 

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