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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, April 9, 2016

How Kids Enlist in the Culture Wars

Anyone who has been watching American political events this year will be aware of the reasons for the term “culture wars”. We’re not just watching groups of people who happen to agree with each other and not with their opposite numbers; we’re watching groups each bound together by beliefs and practices, and each disapproving strongly of the other’s positions. The beliefs and practices of each group are defined as cultures because they are taught and learned by members whose group shares them. The “war” part is unfortunately pretty obvious these days.

Although the United States is fortunately multicultural, there are two broad groups (each a coalition of smaller groups) that form the cultures now struggling in the political arena. The first of these is a modernist, progressive, liberal group,  consisting of the mainstream religious bodies combined with the secular humanists, whose beliefs and practices are not very different from those of the liberal churches. The second group is traditionalist, fundamentalist, and conservative. As adults, the two groups display strong differences in attitudes and preferred behaviors associated with a variety of issues. For examples of differences in the beliefs of these two groups, we can look at attitudes toward contraception and abortion, toward same-sex marriage, and toward reports of global warming.

Not surprisingly, the modernist and traditionalist groups each do their best to inculcate their beliefs and practices into children growing up in their groups. But how do they do this? When do the children begin to share the adult attitudes? Are modernist 5-year-olds and fundamentalist 5-year-olds already very different in their thinking? Or does it take years of teaching and cognitive development before differences are evident? Gilbert and Sullivan claimed that “Every boy and every gal that’s born into this world alive/ Is either a little liberAL or else a little conservaTIVE”. Were they right?

These are not easy questions to answer, but some help has been provided in a recent article (Jensen, L.E., & McKenzie, J. [2016]. The moral reasoning of U.S. evangelical and mainline Protestant children, adolescents, and adults: A cultural-developmental study. Child Development, 87[2], 446-464; N.B., if you look at this paper—I think the captions to figures 2 and 3 are reversed). Jensen and McKenzie compared moral reasoning in members of two Presbyterian groups, the modernist Presbyterian Church (USA) and the fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The first is a member of the National Council of Churches, the second a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. (Although I mentioned earlier that secular humanists might share a good deal with the modernist churches, I want to point out that no secular humanists were included here, and the results of this study may not apply to them as well.) Interviews about moral judgments and reasoning were carried out with 60 members of each church, the groups divided evenly into 7-12-year-olds, 13-18-year-olds, and adults ages 36-57. For example, at one point, interviewees were asked whether they could tell about a time when they had an important experience involving a moral issue—this might be a situation where they now think their actions were morally right, or they may now seem morally wrong. 

Of course most people find it difficult to explain all the details of their moral reasoning and judgment, whether they think an action is right or whether they think it’s wrong. Jensen and McKenzie worked out some details of the interviewees’ thinking by analyzing issues and answers on three dimensions. One was the age of the participant, a piece of information that would help establish developmental change in moral reasoning. A second was whether the moral issue being discussed was a private experience (like drug use, behavior toward friends, theft, or volunteering) or had to do with public sphere (like giving money to panhandlers, divorce, or capital punishment). The third dimension had to do with the ethical perspective taken. The authors referred to the three possibilities as follows: The Ethic of Autonomy focuses on harm to the self and the interests of the self and the needs of other individuals (as unique persons, not simply as group members). These moral decisions attempt to protect the self and other individuals, and this type of moral reasoning begins in early childhood and persists into adulthood. The Ethic of Community makes moral decisions on the basis of duties toward group needs, initially the family and later schools and even broader social organizations, whose harmony is seen as important. This type of moral reasoning is minimal in early childhood and may gradually increase through adolescence and into adulthood. Finally, the Ethic of Divinity stresses the role of spiritual or religious entities, with moral decisions involving obedience to a god’s authority, natural law, or spiritual purity. The last ethic has received much less research attention than the others.

Jensen and McKenzie’s interviewees used the Ethic of Autonomy most as children and decreased this perspective somewhat through adolescence and into adulthood. The Community perspective increased for everyone from childhood into adulthood.

The great difference between the groups was in the use of the Ethic of Divinity—rare even among evangelical children, almost nonexistent among modernist children, and increasing with age through adolescence, but by far most common among fundamentalist adults thinking about public moral issues (e.g., same-sex marriage).  Mainline adults, though less likely to use the Ethic of Divinity at all, applied it more often in the private than in the public sphere. A major difference between modernist and fundamentalist adults was in the appeal to scriptural authority, with Bibles being used and on display in fundamentalist households but rarely referenced by modernists.

 Jensen and McKenzie pointed out that the two “armies” in the current culture wars are not committed to the same “moral lingua franca” and therefore find themselves unable to carry out any real discussion of their differences. This is not so much a problem in childhood, when evangelical and mainline children tend to share the Ethic of Autonomy, but looms large after adolescence, when evangelicals emphasize the Ethic of Divinity, a perspective rarely taken by modernists.

That such different moral languages are spoken by the two major  groups may be one of the reasons for the current intense emphasis on angry emotion in politics. Neither understands what the other is saying, and the discussion is regrettably reduced to mime. Can we generalize this view to an explanation of world-wide conflicts? I think that’s possible—but such thinking is only a baby step toward  resolution on any stage.  


  1. Jean Mercer,
    I'm working with a 6 year old boy. It is not an orphan. But to get the situation when his mother could not find people who would be able to successfully vvzaimodeystvvovat with him. Doctors diagnosed him with autism. But I doubt the correctness of this diagnosis. This boy laughs infectiously. Quietly stand eye contact, and even on the last lesson, tried to joke with me. He pointed a finger at the window as though there is someone there ... I looked ... and he took and put my pencil. He laughed and was glad that he was able to deceive me. This boy can not talk. It shows aggression to sversnikam and therefore can not attend kindergarten. Find a babysitter for him was a big problem he rejected all kondidatov and drove them out of the house. Now he has nyanb (young girl from Ukraine). She leads him to my classes. But I do not like how they interact. He commands but she meekly obeys and performs all his desires. I was able to establish contact with him because I came up with a system of encouragements (5 tokens for the correct answer (action) = 1 prize (a toy or candy). But the system only works in my office. For babysitting and for mom he makes tantrums when they trying to argue with him. I do not have experience with autistic children but I suspect that he is not autistic. I think .... he was very spoiled. Everyone in the family indulged him. Maybe I ' m wrong. But when he tried to install the rules in my office ... I stopped the session and drove him out. he's a little whining for door but then came back with a vengeance began to earn prizes (successfully perform the job). Perhaps parents should be more strict with him? Maybe it's not autism but the consequences of improper upbringing. I see eye alalia but I do not understand, he is autistic and he is not autistic.

    1. Dear Mihail-- I am not the best person to answer this question for you, but I will try. I have to wonder whether this boy's lack of speech is connected to autism at all. Is his hearing normal? How does he give commands to the nanny? Has anyone ever worked with him to learn sign language?

      Because you can get him to interact and cooperate, I wonder whether the mother needs training in parenting skills of the kind that is done in Parent Child Interaction Therapy. This could help even if he does have some autistic features.

      It is really not fair to the child to let him believe he can make everyone do what he wants, so I hope you can find some help for the mother.

      Another thought would be ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), which uses a reward system as you are presently doing.

      I hope you can find some way to help this family!