Family Interactions and the Development of Moral Reasoning


  • This project was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (498-83-0010 and 498-85-0002). Portions of this research were reported at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Kansas City, April 1989, and at the meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Jyväskylä, Finland, July 1989. We wish to acknowledge the enthusiastic cooperation of the families who participated in this project, the dedicated work of out research assistants and typists, and the helpful comments of Marianne Schroeder.

concerning this article should be sent to Lawrence J. Walker, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Y7.


The study examined parents' role in their children's moral reasoning development. Parents' level of moral reasoning and interaction styles used in discussion of moral issues with their child were used to predict the child's moral development over a subsequent 2-year interval. Participants were 63 family triads (mother, father, and child) with children drawn from grades 1, 4, 7, and 10. They individually responded to a moral reasoning interview and then, as a family, discussed both a hypothetical and real-life moral dilemma. Children were reinterviewed 2 years later. Results indicated that parents did accommodate to their child's level of moral reasoning when in actual dialogue. Distinct differences in interaction styles were found between the 2 contexts (hypothetical vs. real-life dilemma discussion) and between parents and children. Children's moral development was best predicted by a parental discussion style that involved Socratic questioning and supportive interactions, combined with the presentation of higher-level moral reasoning. Implications of these findings for the understanding of parents' role in children's moral development are discussed.