Morality Play

A mother sets her 3-year-old in front of a pile of tempting toys, forbids her to play with them and then leaves the room. Does the child break the no-playing rule?

According to a study on children's sense of conscience, it depends on how well she mimicked her mother at age 1.

David R. Forman, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, watched as 14- and 22-month-old children copied simple tasks taught by their mothers, such as having a make-believe tea party and feeding a teddy bear.

They followed up with the same kids at the ages of 33 and 45 months and placed them in scenarios—such as the room with forbidden toys—that would test their internalization of rules and their sense of guilt, both signs of a developed conscience. Babies who had successfully imitated mom demonstrated a more highly developed conscience later on.

Some psychologists believe that imitation teaches kids that other people are like them, and thus worthy of empathy. Others, like Forman, think that a willingness to imitate indicates a general receptiveness to socialization.

To investigate the connection between imitation and parent-child relationships, Forman plans to compare the imitative responses of children to their mothers, to strangers and to animated videos.

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Ultimately, psychologists hope these studies will help determine whether imitation directly sparks the development of conscience or whether a common cause produces both behaviors.

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