Humans are moral beings, thus knowing the differences between right and wrong must be learned, as this is vital for the development of moral agency. Over the years, numerous scientists have become interested in researching aspects of the development of moral agency. Henceforth, moral development has been shown to be dependent on the creation of autobiographical memories, based on both positive and negative experiences (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010; Fivush, Habermas, Waters, & Zaman, 2011). Bearing in mind, mother-child interactions have been widely studied, as a result of the notion that parental interactions with their children bought about deeper emotional and intellectual understandings regarding morality (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; Smetana, 1999; Hardy & Carlo, 2011). However, the exact role in which mother-child interactions play on the development of moral agency was not yet clearly known. Thus, the aim of this current review was to investigate how autobiographical memories described between mother-child dyads contribute to the development of moral agency in children and adolescents, as well as how autobiographical memories differ with age and amongst siblings.
Autobiographical memories are defined as vivid memories of personal experiences, which can be both positive or negative, as well filled with emotions and feelings (Fivush, Habermas, Waters, & Zaman, 2011). Thus, parents help build their children’s autobiographical memories and life narratives by allowing their children to talk about and elaborate on their experiences, ultimately contributing to the development of their socialization skills (Fivush et al. , 2011). Fivush and colleagues (2011) aimed to explain the development of autobiographical memories in young preschoolers (who were experiencing social encounters for the first time) and adolescents (who were at the stage of building their life stories). It was revealed that mothers who recounted their own autobiographical memories in grave detail to their children helped foster the development of their child’s own personal autobiographical memories. Particularly for adolescents, the more mothers recounted their own life narratives, the more their child was able to develop the skills required to expand on their autobiographical memories and build a life narrative of their own (Fivush et al. , 2011).Evidently, this suggested that these parent-child interactions were vital for moral development in children, because the parents acted as the gatekeeper to understanding autobiographical memories (Smetana, 1999). Thus, parent-child relationships were rich in emotional experiences, due to the affective nature of the relationship, as a result parental interactions were prominent in their child’s development of morality (Smetana, 1999). Hence, as demonstrated in the literature, mother-child conversations about autobiographical memories were beneficial for both preschoolers and adolescents, due to the fact that the child/adolescent was able to better develop their own autobiographical memories and life stories, which allowed for richer societal connections and understanding of one’s self-identity (Fivush et al. , 2011; Smetana, 1999). The Development of Moral AgencyMother-child interactions brought about the development of moral agency in their children. Pasupathi and Wainryb (2010) defined moral agency as “people’s understanding and experience of themselves (and others) as agents whose morally relevant actions are based in goals and beliefs” (p. 55). As evidenced in Smetana’s (1999) review, the development of moral agency in children and adolescents was dependent on mother-child interactions, as well as interactions with other socializing agents (Smetana, 1999). Additionally, it has been found that parents play a role in helping children/adolescents find their moral identity by paving the way towards further understanding of their moral actions, by discussing the differences between right and wrong, as well as the associated consequences (Hardy & Carlo, 2011).
Thus, a widespread literature has demonstrated that when helping someone, this brought about prosocial behaviours and allowed for positive experiences. Conversely, when harming someone, this caused problems regarding one’s sense of doing the right thing, because they acted against their constructed sense of morality, which caused negative experiences (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010).
Moreover, Recchia and colleagues (2014) investigated the importance of mother-child exchanges regarding the issue of moral agency when engaging in prosocial or negative behaviours. They tested mother-child dyads, with children of varying ages (7, 11 and 16 years old) (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014). Findings revealed that when mothers discussed with their child/adolescent about prosocial experiences (regarding an instance when the child/adolescent assisted their peer), the conversation focused on the positive aspects of helping, which allowed the child/adolescent to learn more about prosocial behaviours. Conversely, when the topic of conversation was about negative experiences (regarding an instance when the child/adolescent misbehaved and injured their peer), the conversation focused on the mother trying to fix the situation by helping their child/adolescent develop strategies to handle the incident differently in the future, in order to right their wrongdoings. Overall, the mother-child conversations allowed the child/adolescent to develop their moral agency skills, regarding both positive and negative experiences, due to the fact that these conversations helped shape the child/adolescent interactions in the morally socialized world (Recchia et al. , 2014).
In addition, Pasupathi and Wainryb (2010) implied a similar idea regarding the notion that moral agency was determined based on one’s actions with the intent of caring for others and oneself, as well as ensuring justice for all. Thus, when children are constructing their life narratives about past events, their main focus was on this notion of moral agency, because they were explaining their experiences based on the ideas of caring and justice (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010). Specifically, when children learn and develop moral agency, they were focused on abiding by rules and obligations, as well as ensuring that everyone’s emotions were respected (Wainryb & Brehl, 2006). As children’s moral agency developed and became more complex, they were better able to explain their positive and negative experiences (Wainryb & Brehl, 2006; Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; Hardy & Carlo, 2011). Therefore, life narratives enhanced the development of moral agency, due to the constructed context which allowed individuals to explain their own and others’ experiences of right and wrong (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010).
The current state of the literature thus far has demonstrated that individuals acquire moral agency through the construction of autobiographical memories. Additionally, positive experiences allowed for the development of prosocial behaviours, while negative experiences brought about strategies to resolve wrongdoings, thus helping children become better agents of morality in society (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010; Wainryb & Brehl, 2006). Future experiments should shed light on the gap in research regarding how mother-child interactions about autobiographical memories contribute to the development of moral agency in siblings of varying ages. Thus, based on the current literature, it was predicted that, in the context of siblings, mother-child conversations regarding autobiographical memories more heavily influence the development of moral agency in adolescents (the older sibling) as opposed to the younger sibling, due to the fact that adolescents have further developed abilities in self-expression, which allow for richer autobiographical memories, ultimately improving their understanding of morality.