Research Notes: Moral Dilemma Discussions

Research Notes

by Gwynn Powell

In the broadest sense, what are elements in a child's environment that influence character development? What processes lead to the development of moral maturity? Nature versus nurture? Peers versus parents? Researchers ask these questions in an effort to understand the developmental process and its effect on behavior. While some investigate the "either/or," others question the removal of the dichotomy and investigate the interaction. For example, what are the effects of peers and parents on growth? It is often said, "a camp counselor is a cross between a parent and a friend to the camper"; therefore, research into the interaction of peers and parents on a child's moral development may offer some useful insight for camp counselors and leadership staff.

In order to investigate the relationships between interactions and moral-reasoning development, Walker, Henning, and Krettenauer (2000) recorded a series of conversations between teens (boys and girls ages thirteen to sixteen) and a parent, as well as between teens and a friend. The conversations contained both hypothetical moral dilemmas (to allow for comparison between participants) and actual moral dilemmas. The latter were situations reported by the participants, involving themselves (to allow for comparison across contexts). In addition, each participant's stage of moral-reasoning development was rated annually, using a standard process (Colby & Kohlberg, 1987), so that an investigation of moral growth could extend over a four-year period. The results of the study revealed different types of interactions with peers and parents that could be used as predictors of growth in moral reasoning. Three main areas of insight relevant to summer camp are: types of moral-dilemma discussions, types of interactions, and relationships of interactions to moral-reasoning growth.

Types of Moral Dilemma Discussions

A common way to lead cabin-group discussions is to pose a hypothetical what-if situation and encourage discussion among campers. Earlier research (Berkowitz & Gibbs, 1983) categorized such types of discussions, generally, as one of two types: representational and operational. A representational discussion involves campers seeking to understand another person's reasoning process, using paraphrasing as a tool for verifying comprehension. In contrast, an operational discussion reflects a critical or questioning approach, involving campers who seek to either act on a situation, as if they were using the other person's strategy, or attempt to challenge and change the other person's line of reasoning. As the discussion leader, knowledge of the two approaches gives insight into the thought processes of the campers and can also lead to the following springboard questions.


  • On what do you feel your friend is basing his perspective?
  • What steps do you feel your friend has taken to arrive at a conclusion?
  • Help us understand the viewpoint your friend is expressing.
  • What is different about your friend's plan from your own?


  • If we follow this line of thinking, what are some possible conclusions?
  • If we change the behavior by doing "X," how would the outcome be affected?
  • What about this dilemma caused you to approach the situation in that way?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the plan or response?

Types of Interactions

The process of analyzing the recorded conversations by Walker, et al., centered on classification of the "conversational turn" by each participant. The researchers classified the turns in the following categories:

  • "Operational (speeches that operate on the reasoning of another): critique, competitive request, counter-consideration, concession, clarification (explanation or integration), competitive clarification
  • Representational (speeches that elicit or represent the reasoning of another): request, paraphrase, comprehension check
  • Informative (speeches that entail the sharing of opinions): opinion, agreement, disagreement, request
    for change, intent for closure
  • Supportive (speeches that indicate positive affect and encouragement to participate): encouragement (including listening responses), humor
  • Interfering (speeches that indicate negative affect and interfere with sustained and coherent discussion): distracting, refusal, devalue talk, distortion, hostility." (p. 1038.)

The ability of a counselor to recognize and label the types and goals of specific responses provides a more stable base from which to lead, understand, and support discussions.

Relationships of Interactions to Moral-Reasoning Growth

Walker, et al., initially examined the relationship between the different types of interactions (both peer and parent) and the rate of moral-reasoning growth of the participant. Their findings indicated differences in growth rate that could be predicted by type of interaction.

Next, they investigated the specific difference between parent-child interaction and friend-child interactions. The primary difference between the two groups of interactions was that parents generally interacted with cognitive discussions, using both operational and representational comments. Friends, however, generally interacted with more informative and interfering comments. With both groups, the hypothetical-situation discussions yielded more of an intellectual exercise, while the real-life-situation discussions resulted in more questions and paraphrasing in regards to conflict with another person.

Among both peers and parents, representational interaction predicted high rates of moral development, while peers engaging in operational interaction were associated with minimal growth (perhaps due to defensiveness related to the challenge). Informational interactions from peers or parents may have been perceived as lectures, thus explaining the association with slow-growth rates. Among peers, when supportive interactions were combined with representational ones, growth was predicted, yet when combined with informational, it was not. The interfering category was related to minimal growth in the parental context, yet was related to rapid growth among peers. The researchers' explanation is that freer expression of conflict occurs more among peers than among unequals.

The Bottom Line

While this research offers insight, it also brings to the surface areas in need of greater understanding. As a camp counselor seeking to lead discussions that will generate greater moral development, results which show that parents and friends play different roles, based on their interactions, may be of comfort. At different times during the camp experience, the counselor may play a variety of roles (never fully parent and never fully peer).

Regardless of the role of the counselor, participation by campers in discussions based on real-life cabin dilemmas may contribute to increased moral-reasoning development, especially if the questions and probes lead to greater understanding of another's perspectives and thought processes. Knowledge of different types of interactions and their relationships to growth rate may assist counselors in their leadership and give them confidence in leading discussions pertaining to character issues.

Berkowitz, M.W., & Gibbs, J.C. (1983). Measuring the developmental features of moral discussion. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 29, 399-410.
Colby, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1987). The measurement of moral judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Walker, L.J., Henning, K.H., & Krettenauer, T. (2000). Parent and peer contexts for children's moral reasoning development. Child Development, 71(4), 1033-1048.

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration. She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping. Please contact Powell through e-mail, for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2001 January/December issue of Camping Magazine.