The two normative worlds of childhood. Preschoolers' moral reasoning in the context of parent-child and peer interactions

  • Maria Mammen

Student thesis: Phd


Parent–child and peer interactions are two fundamentally different, but equally important contexts for children’s moral development (Piaget, 1932). However, so far, there has hardly been any systematic comparison of young children’s moral reasoning and their normative expectations in these two social contexts (see Kruger & Tomasello, 1986 for school-aged children). In my dissertation I therefore examined 3- to 6-year-old preschoolers’ collaborative reasoning about morality in these two “normative worlds� of childhood. Peer interactions, as argued by Piaget (1965), offer children a “safe haven� to explore the normative world, due to the equal knowledge, experience, and authority of the peers. In study 1, I investigated whether preschoolers already have the skills to successfully reason about social norms with their peers. I looked at how children provided reasons for their moral judgments about third-party social-conventional and moral transgressions in peer conversations. I found that 3- and 5-year-olds adapted the informativeness of their reasons to their mutual knowledge about the norms with their peers. For instance, they provided less informative justifications for punishing moral transgressors (e.g., “She stole�) because we all know stealing is wrong as compared to unfamiliar conventional transgressions (e.g., “She placed the toy into an incorrect box. In this nursery, it is not right�). Thus, as early as age 3, children actively engage in moral reasoning with peers. In study 2, I investigated whether children structure the reasons for their moral judgments differently with partners from their two normative worlds, namely with peers and mothers. I compared preschoolers’ mother–child and peer discussions about moral dilemmas. I found that 4- and 6-year-old children were more active reasoners with peers than with mothers: they offered reasons for their moral judgments more often spontaneously and challenged their partner’s view more often in the peer context than in the mother–child context. This indicates that peer interactions with their equal power structure, offer children a unique fruitful context for moral reasoning. Finally, in study 3, I investigated how children reason about their two normative worlds and whether they use different moral standards when evaluating the reasons or “excuses� by adults and children. I found that 4- and 6-year-old peers judged that refusing to help a child who is cold by saying “I am cold, too� was only acceptable coming from a peer, but not from a parent. This suggests that children do not only reason differently in the two social contexts but that they also reason differently about the actors in these contexts. Taken together, these studies suggest that starting at ages 3 to 4, children are aware of the two normative worlds they grow up in. Peers are seen as equal partners, with whom children actively engage in discussions and provide appropriate reasons for their moral judgments. Parents are seen as authority figures who lead discussions, elicit engagement and, in turn, are expected to offer guidance and care for the child. My thesis therefore provides insight into how children’s discussions, moral judgments and normative expectations differ across the two normative worlds of childhood.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorElena Lieven (Supervisor) & Bahar Köymen (Supervisor)


  • collaborative decision-making
  • moral common ground
  • reasoning
  • moral development
  • parent-child interactions
  • peer interactions

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