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Fairness, Rights, and Harm in Early Childhood: A 2-Year Investigation of Moral Family Conflict

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The present study examined polyadic family conflicts (i.e., involving three or more active members) comprising moral issues (i.e., fairness, rights, harm) across a 2-year period in early childhood. Moral conflicts were coded for initiating parties, topic, and use of power strategies. Thirty-nine families participated in six 90-min naturalistic observations when children were 2- and 4-years of age at T1 and again two years later (T2). Findings indicated the majority of polyadic family conflict topics concerned three moral issues, specifically, conflicts pertaining to issues of fairness and harm occurred significantly more than conflicts about rights. Disputes about fairness were more common at T1 than T2, whereas those about rights were more common at T2 than T1. Further, children were more likely to initiate disputes over fairness and harm, whereas parents frequently initiated conflicts about rights. Lastly, in terms of power strategies, coercion was used most frequently across moral topics. Findings expand the conflict literature by investigating the family as an integrated unit and examining the involvement of its members in young children’s development of morality.


  • Moral polyadic conflicts were studied using a comprehensive observational and longitudinal dataset.

  • Conflicts about fairness and harm occur more than rights, but also vary as a function of time.

  • Family members differentially initiate and respond to conflict depending on the moral conflict context.

  • The family context is a training ground for learning about moral conflicts involving multiple active actors.

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The authors acknowledge support received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (doctoral fellowships to the first and second authors, and strategic research grants to the fourth and fifth authors). The fourth author also recognizes support received from the Concordia University Research Chair in Early Childhood Development and Education. We would like to thank the children and families who participated in this study. Additionally, we would like to thank Alicia Fong, Jade Elyssia Pare, and Natasha Schleifer for their research assistance.

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Correspondence to Nina Howe.

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Scirocco, A., Persram, R.J., Della Porta, S. et al. Fairness, Rights, and Harm in Early Childhood: A 2-Year Investigation of Moral Family Conflict. J Child Fam Stud 32, 2878–2888 (2023).

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