Purpose. Delinquent behaviour among children and adolescents is escalating at a considerable rate. This has led to calls to lower the Age of Criminal Responsibility (ACR); however there is limited research on which to base such a decision. The present study addressed this omission by (1) assessing whether or not children can accurately distinguish right from wrong in relation to ‘real-life’ transgressions and (2) investigating psychosocial factors that may constrain children from acting in accordance with their knowledge of what is right and wrong.

Methods. A total of 452 students were recruited from five schools in Sydney, Australia. Forty percent of participants were younger children recruited from Year 5 classes in primary school (mean age of 10.49), and 60% were older children from Year 8 classes in high school (mean age of 14.29). All students completed a questionnaire measuring their understanding of right and wrong, their level of moral disengagement and delinquent behaviour, and their perceived self-efficacy relating to academic achievement, empathy, and resistance to peer pressure.

Results. The majority of children in both age groups demonstrated knowing the difference between right and wrong in relation to ‘real-life’ transgressions. Further analyses using structural equation modelling (analysis of moment structures, AMOS) revealed that children who engaged in delinquent behaviour were unable to exercise this knowledge appropriately to regulate their behaviour. They were less able to resist peer pressure for transgressive conduct, had low levels of empathic and academic self-efficacies, and disengaged from moral standards.

Conclusions. Implications for policy change and future research directions are proposed.