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Friends versus family

Education professor reveals how conflicts among children provide opportunities for moral development
March 20, 2013
By Emily Essert

When children torment younger siblings or engage in schoolyard fights, there’s a real opportunity for parents and educators to seize the situation as a teachable moment about right and wrong, according to a new study co-authored by a Concordia professor.

Holly Recchia is a member of the Department of Education at Concordia University. | Photo by David Ward
Holly Recchia is a member of the Department of Education at Concordia University. | Photo by David Ward

Holly Recchia, an assistant professor in the Department of Education and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, co-authored the paper with Cecilia Wainryb and Monisha Pasupathi in the Psychology Department at the University of Utah. It will soon be published in Child Development.

They asked children aged seven, 11 and 16 about times when they had caused harm to their younger siblings or their friends. While earlier research has shown that children’s friendships play an important role in their moral development, this is the first study to analyze children’s own stories to discover how conflicts with siblings differ from those with friends.

When children were asked to talk about a time when they had hurt a friend, they tended to describe an incident involving relatively benign behaviours on their

part, such as dishonesty or insensitivity, and explained these were done with good intentions or in response to extenuating circumstances. They made a point of emphasizing that the hurt they caused their friends wasn’t deliberate. This was especially true of the youngest children in the study, who seemed to view friendships as fragile relationships that could easily end.

The children’s responses indicate that when children reflect on the harm they had done to their friends, they have a chance to consider the needs and feelings of others. They learn about misunderstanding, miscommunications, and how their actions may have real and unintended consequences. If parents or caregivers are aware of these incidents, they can help children to understand and learn from them.

In contrast, when children described a conflict with a younger sibling, they were more likely to admit to taking something that wasn’t theirs, or to doing something intentionally offensive or ruthless, such as name calling or taunting. They tended to describe such incidents as provoked, and as typical of their relationship with their sibling.

When children discussed times they had verbally or physically harmed their younger siblings, they were more likely to refer to the senselessness of the conflict and express feelings of remorse or regret.

The study concluded that such conflicts provide “distinct but complementary” opportunities from those with friends for fostering social and moral development. “Instances of harm toward a sibling offer opportunities for self-evaluation, and for a deeper understanding of the cyclical and escalating character of ongoing conflicts,” Recchia explains.

When parents intervene in these disputes between siblings, they have an opportunity encourage this moral reflection.

Recchia and her colleagues also found that the differences in children’s responses to conflicts with friends versus siblings diminished with age. They were less prominent among the 16-year-old respondents. The researchers attributed this to adolescents and teens viewing their friendships as more durable than younger children tend to do, and their sibling relationships becoming less emotionally intense.

Related links:
•    Concordia’s Department of Education
•    Centre for Research in Human Development
•    Holly Recchia on Research @ Concordia

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