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You Always Hurt The Ones You Love – Children’s Conflicts Provide Opportunities For Moral Development

Concordia professor studies how children’s conflicts provide opportunities for moral

We may not remember tormenting our , and our schoolyard fights with friends are long forgotten. But a recent study suggests that both kinds of conflict provide opportunities for learning about right and wrong. It offers a clearer picture of the differences between disputes with friends and those with siblings, which will help parents and educators to encourage children to use these situations as teachable moments.

Professor Holly Recchiafrom ’s Department of Education is the co-author of a paper forthcoming in Child Development. Recchia and her collaborators (Cecilia Wainryb and Monisha Pasupathi at the University of Utah) asked children aged seven, 11 and 16 about times when they had caused harm to their younger siblings or their friends. Earlier studies have shown that children’s friendships play an important role in their moral developments. But this study is the first to analyze children’s own stories to discover how conflicts with siblings differ from those with friends.

When children were asked to talk about a time when they had hurt a friend, they tended to describe an incident involving relatively benign behaviours like dishonesty or insensitivity, to claim that they had good intentions, or to describe extenuating circumstances. In other words, it seems that they are cautious about avoiding harm to their friends. This was especially true of the youngest children in the study, who seemed to view friendships as fragile relationships that could end easily.

These interviews indicated that when children reflect on unintentional harm done to their friends, they have a chance to consider the needs and feelings of others. They learn about misunderstanding, miscommunication, and how their actions may have real, unintended consequences. If parents or caregivers are aware of these incidents, they can help children to understand and learn from them.

In contrast, when describing a conflict with a younger sibling, children were more likely to admit to taking something that wasn’t theirs, or to doing something obviously offensive or ruthless, such as name calling or taunting. They tended to describe such incidents as provoked, and as typical of their relationship with their sibling. For this reason, the study concluded that these two kinds of conflict provide “distinct but complementary” opportunities for social and .

When children discussed times when they have harmed their younger siblings, they were more likely to refer to the senselessness of conflict and feelings of remorse orregret. “That means that instances of harm toward a sibling offer opportunities for self-evaluation, and for a deeper understanding of the cyclical and escalating character of ongoing conflicts,” explains Recchia, who is also a member for the Centre for Research in Human Development. Because parents are often called upon tointervene in disputes between siblings, they may also have opportunities toencourage this moral reflection.

Recchia and her team also found that these differences decrease with age – they were less prominent among the 16-year-old respondents. The researchers attributed this development to the fact that, among adolescents, friendships are seen as more durable and sibling relationships become less emotionally intense.


Source: Concordia University