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Mother-child Interactions: Autobiographical Memories and Moral Agency

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The differences between right and wrong must be learned early in childhood and adolescence, as this is vital for the development of moral agency (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014). 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 (Fivush, Habermas, Waters, & Zaman, 2011; Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010). Bearing in mind, mother-child interactions have been widely studied, due to the fact that parental interactions with their children bought about deeper emotional and intellectual understandings regarding morality (Hardy & Carlo, 2011; Recchia, et al. , 2014; Smetana, 1999).

However, the exact role in which mother-child interactions play on the development of moral agency was unclear. 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/adolescents at varying ages. This answer was two-fold. Firstly, mother-child interactions regarding autobiographical memories allowed the child/adolescent to learn how to develop their own autobiographical memories, which were richer with age (Fivush, et al. , 2011; Smetana, 1999). Secondly, interactions between mother-child dyads allowed the child/adolescent to develop moral agency skills, due to the positive and negative experiences, which helped shape the child/adolescent’s morality (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010; Recchia, et al. , 2014).

Autobiographical Memories

Autobiographical memories were defined as vivid memories of personal experiences, which can be both positive or negative, as well as filled with emotions and feelings (Fivush, Habermas, Waters, & Zaman, 2011).

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) explained 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). Hence, as demonstrated in the literature, mother-child conversations about autobiographical memories were beneficial for children 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 Agency

Mother-child interactions effected 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, Hardy and Carlo (2011) 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. Thus, a widespread literature demonstrated that the act of helping someone brought about prosocial behaviours and allowed for positive experiences (Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010). Conversely, harming someone caused problems regarding one’s sense of doing the right thing, as they acted against their constructed sense of morality, which caused negative experiences. Moreover, Recchia and colleagues (2014) investigated the impact of mother-child exchanges on moral agency when engaging in prosocial or negative behaviours. They tested mother-child dyads, using interviews 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 (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010; Recchia, Wainryb, Bourne, & Pasupathi, 2014; 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, mother-child conversations regarding autobiographical memories influence children/adolescents, with regards to the development of moral agency, although adolescents have further developed abilities in self-expression, which allow for richer autobiographical memories, ultimately improving their understanding of morality (Pasupathi & Wainryb, 2010; Recchia, et al. , 2014; Smetana, 1999).

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Mother-Child Interactions: Autobiographical Memories And Moral Agency. (2020, February 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from
“Mother-Child Interactions: Autobiographical Memories And Moral Agency.” GradesFixer, 27 Feb. 2020,
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