Children's Conscience and Self-Regulation


  • Research described in this article has been supported by the grants from NIMH, RO1 MH63096 and KO2 MH01446, and from NSF, SBR-9510863 to the first author. We are grateful to numerous dedicated students and staff members in our laboratory at the University of Iowa, the many enthusiastically committed families who have participated in our studies, and our collaborators and colleagues, including Steven Anderson, Lee Anna Clark, Katherine Coy, David Forman, Don Fowles, Kathleen Murray, Judith Smetana, and Ross Thompson. We also thank the editor of the special section, Rick Hoyle, and the anonymous reviewers, whose many helpful comments have improved the quality of this article.

concerning this work may be sent to Grazyna Kochanska, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1407. E-mail:


ABSTRACT We focus on children's conscience, an inner guiding system responsible for the gradual emergence and maintenance of self-regulation. Drawing from our research program that has encompassed three large longitudinal studies cumulatively covering the first 6 years of life, we discuss two major components of conscience: moral emotions (guilt, discomfort following transgressions) and moral conduct compatible with rules and standards. We discuss the organization of young children's conscience, focusing on relations between moral emotions and moral conduct, and the development of conscience, focusing on its early form: the child's eager, willing stance toward parental socialization. We also review research on two major sets of influences that predict individual differences in moral emotions and moral conduct: biologically based temperament and socialization in the family. We discuss two inhibitory systems of temperament—fearfulness and effortful control—and several features of socialization, including the style of parental discipline and the quality of the parent-child relationship. Early conscience is an important early personality system, coherently organized, relatively stable over time, and subject to individual differences that emerge as a result of a complex interplay between children's temperamental individuality and socialization in the family.