Background: Associations between early mother–child mutually responsive orientation (MRO) and children's conscience have been previously established, but the mechanisms accounting for those links are not understood. We examined three such mediational mechanisms: (a) the child's enhanced enjoyment of interactions with the mother, (b) increased committed, self-regulated compliance with the mother, and/or (c) a decreased need for maternal use of power assertion. Children's conscience was seen as a complex system encompassing moral emotion (guilt), conduct, and cognition.
Methods: In a longitudinal design, MRO was observed in mothers’ and children's multiple naturalistic interactions at 9, 14, and 22 months. The mediators were observed at 33 months. Children's conscience was observed at 45 months (moral emotion) and at 56 months (moral conduct and cognition).
Results: The mediating paths were different for the three components of conscience. MRO had a direct, unmediated effect on moral emotion. MRO influenced moral conduct through two mediational paths: by promoting the child's enjoyment of interactions with the mother and by enhancing committed compliance. MRO influenced moral cognition by promoting the child's enjoyment of mother–child interactions. Maternal power assertion did not mediate the relation between MRO and conscience once the influence of the other mediators was considered.
Conclusions: The impact of the early mother–child relationship on future conscience appears to be a complex process that progresses along distinct paths.