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.
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:
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-situat