Our research focuses on trying to understand how children learn about themselves, others, and relationships. Although there are likely multiple influences that shape children’s early social and self understanding, our research focuses mostly on relational influences. Right from the start children find themselves in intense emotional relationships that provide them with a rich natural laboratory in which they learn about themselves and others. Our program of research has focused on trying to understand how aspects of these close relationships, including both broad relational qualities (such as attachment security) and more specific relational process (such as mother-child discourse) relate to children’s emotional understanding (i.e., affective perspective taking), moral development (including empathy, internalization of values, and prosocial behavior), self understanding (and self-esteem), and representations of relationships.
Our work centers on many different themes. An overview of some of the interests that we have are discussed below:
Parent-child conversations and children's emotional and moral development
We study the role that parent-child conversations play in fostering children’s emotional and moral understanding.
For young children, conversations with parents help to make explicit the hidden, and often confusing psychological world that underlies behavior, relationships, and self-understanding (such as emotion and intention). Second, conversations with parents provide a way in a child can exchange information about (and ultimately compare) their shared emotional and relational experiences with others. As a result, there are good reasons to believe that discourse between parents and children is one avenue through which preschool children construct an understanding of relationships, emotions, and morality. Therefore, differences in the ways in which mothers choose to discuss emotional, moral, and relational issues likely have important consequences for a child’s construction of understanding. Thus, our research has focused on trying to understand how differences in the content, style, and affect (or tone) of mother-child discourse relate to young children’s construction of emotional and moral understanding. In addition, we are interested in factors that predict the quality of conversations between parents and young children about emotions and morality (including child temperament and attachment security).
For older children and adolescents, conversations with parents (especially surrounding moral dilemmas such as bullying) become one important way in which moral values are communicated to children. Conversations about moral issues likely make children aware of the needs of others and encourage children to reflect upon the moral messages that parents transmit in these conversations. Furthermore, parents often use inductive techniques when discussing real moral transgressions (i.e., they discuss the effect of the child’s actions on others) and this too likely promotes moral understanding. Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that conversations about moral dilemmas are important contexts in which moral values are socialized and we are currently exploring this issue in a study with mothers and adolescents (between the ages of 13-16).
The structure of conscience
In early childhood, research has suggested that conscience in early childhood is composed of two higher-order dimensions: moral affect (such as guilt) and internalized conduct. These dimensions appear to be relatively stable across early childhood. What is less clear is whether this structure remains stable or becomes more differentiated across childhood and into adolescence and young adulthood. I have become increasingly interested in this question. In a 2008 paper (Laible, Eye, & Carlo, 2008), we showed that in middle adolescence, the structure of conscience was similar to that in early childhood, involving two components: moral affect (that included shame, empathy, guilt, & empathic anger) and moral cognition (that included moral reasoning and values internalization). In addition, these two components of conscience were differentially predicted by temperament and parenting and were related to different aspects of prosocial and moral behavior. We hope to continue to work to explore the structure of conscience in different age groups and by examining factors that predict conscience.
Proactive regulation: The prevention of misbehavior
Proactive regulation is a parenting technique in which parents structure the environment in such a way to create desired outcomes for the child. Accident prevention (such as baby-proofing the house) is a common type of proactive regulation that parents use to keep children safe. More interestingly, however, parents also use proactive regulation to anticipate and prevent children’s misbehavior. For example, Holden (1983) found that mothers use a wide variety of strategies in supermarkets to avoid children’s misbehavior (e.g., by avoiding high-conflict aisles with tempting items, or by distracting the child in such aisles). There are reasons to believe that such proactive prevention of children’s misbehavior has positive consequences for both children’s socialization and the relationship between the parent and the child. First, by structuring the environment in such a manner that children behave appropriately, proactive regulation scaffolds children’s understanding of appropriate conduct. In Holden’s (1983) early study of proactive regulation, mothers who used proactive regulatory techniques in the supermarket had children who complied more often with maternal demands than mothers who used reactive techniques (i.e., who disciplined the child after his/her misbehavior). Second, however, proactive regulatory techniques also likely limit conflict between parents and children, and thus, promote a more harmonious and mutually responsive orientation between the two.
Despite arguments by several socialization theorists that the parent’s use of
proactive regulatory techniques likely benefit the child and the parent, research on the influence of parental use of
proactive regulation and children’s socialization outcomes has been limited. As a result, we are attempting to study how proactive prevention of children’s misbehavior
relates to children’s conscience (or moral development), compliance with
parental requests, emotion regulation, and the quality relationship between the
parent and child.
Future directions: Moral extensivity and children's racial and gender attitidues
In connection with colleagues at Arizona State University (Dr. Nancy Eisenberg & Dr. Tracy Spinrad) and the University of Missouri (Dr. Gus Carlo), we are currently writing a grant to look at the development of children's attitudes about race and gender (both explicit and implicit). We plan to not only examine the influence of neighborhood factors (e.g., racial composition), school factors (e.g., teacher attitudes) and family factors (such as socialization) on children's attitudes, but also the consequences for those attitudes on moral extensivity (i.e., the degree to which children are empathic and prosocial to individuals who are of a different race and gender). Stay tuned for updates on this line of work.