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Developmental Changes and Individual Differences in Young Children’s Moral Judgments


  • We wish to thank the staff of the Kindercare Day Care Center, the Jewish Community Center Day Care, the Children’s Center of Brighton, and The Unique Child for their cooperation with this research and the families for their participation. We are also grateful to our undergraduate research assistants for their assistance with data collection and data entry and to Melissa Sturge-Apple for her statistical advice.

concerning this article should be addressed to Judith Smetana, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, Meliora Hall, RC 270266, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627. Electronic mail may be sent to


Developmental trajectories and individual differences in 70 American middle-income 2½- to 4-year olds’ moral judgments were examined 3 times across 1 year using latent growth modeling. At Wave 1, children distinguished hypothetical moral from conventional transgressions on all criteria, but only older preschoolers did so when rating deserved punishment. Children’s understanding of moral transgressions as wrong independent of authority grew over time. Greater surgency and effortful control were both associated with a better understanding of moral generalizability. Children higher in effortful control also grew more slowly in understanding that moral rules are not alterable and that moral transgressions are wrong independent of rules. Girls demonstrated sharper increases across time than boys in understanding the nonalterability of moral rules.