Mauritian Childrens Moral Judgments About Bullying Psychology Essay

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The current study investigated whether young Mauritian children’s moral judgments about bullying of siblings and peers on different activities and scenarios on the basis of gender and ethnicity would vary according to their grade (age), ethnicity (Hindus, Muslims and General-populations which include Sino-Mauritians and Christians) level and the context in which the bullying occurred. Individual interviews about bullying in several different contexts were conducted with 120 children from grade 2, 4 and 6. They were expected to reject any type of bullying: direct, relational and cyberbullying, by using judgments based on moral reasoning and/or social conventional reasonings. There were no significant relationships between ethnicity, grade or gender of participant with bullying. Children were found to make more use of moral reasoning to justify whether they support or condemn bullying practices. Also, bullies made less use of reasoning to disapprove of bulling. The findings are discussed in relation to the Mauritian culture and intergroup relations among peers in schools. Limitations of the study were discussed and recommendations for future research were suggested.

Keywords: Moral reasoning; moral judgment; social-conventional reasoning; bullying; direct bullying; relational bullying; cyber-bullying.




This chapter is mostly on the areas of literature related to the research. Firstly, a brief introduction of primary education in Mauritius, followed by a description on bullying (including definition, prevalence, status and bullying on different target group) and finally the relation of moral reasoning based on different theories with bullying (in context of sibling, peer, gender and ethnicity) will be presented. Last of all, an outline of the aims and hypotheses will be explored.

No country including Mauritius can say it is “a model of caring” in its public or private educational institutions (Smith, 2003). Research done worldwide show that school violence is an international health apprehension (Smith, 2003; Smith, Olweus, et al., 1999). Children can be involved in violence in any of their surroundings: home with families, school, day-care and other communities.

Schools in Mauritius are microcosms of its society; it comprises of children of all religions, socio-economic status and social background. Education on the island is managed by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources. It controls the administration of state schools and also has a supervisory role on private schools. The Ministry ensures that all children, as they reach 5 years of age, are enrolled in one of the 305 primary schools scattered on the island. It also sees to it that all children, irrespective of their various differences, enjoy equal rights and facilities. Each and every child goes through a fair admission process, whereby the school allocated is the one nearest to his/her residence, studies the same curriculum and is provided with free education, free transport, free school books, bread and appropriate recreational facilities.

Just like any interesting psychological notion, there is no common agreement on how to define ‘bullying’. However, there is a consensus with researchers in the domain that it is a form of violent and aggressive behaviour which involve the following (Mills & Duck, 2000):

o Behaviour that can physically and/or psychologically harm/hurt someone else

o Having the intention to do so

o Repetitive

o Where there is power imbalance and the victim is not able to retaliate and/or defend himself/herself.

Early research has identified three types bulling: physical, verbal or relational. The first two are also known as direct bullying since it is visible and they embrace direct aggressive acts such as kicking, pushing, name-calling, teasing, humiliating, degrading and other types of direct verbal abuse (Bjorkqvist, 1994). Crick and Grotpeter (1995) defined relational bullying as causing harm on peers such as exclusion from games, spreading rumours, which can destroy peer relationships. Relational bullying is not easily distinguishable. The wild proliferation of new technology in recent years has given students an increasing access to electronic communication such as mobile phones and computers. This has contributed to the rise of cyberbullying: the use of technology to bully others (Li, 2007). Willard (2004, as cited in Li, 2007), in her book, acknowledged some common types of cyber-bullying: flaming (sending of vulgar and nasty messages), online harassment, cyberstalking, denigration (sending of destructive false statements to other people), masquerade, outing (publishing or sending humiliating, sensitive or private information) and exclusion (Rejecting someone from an online group). These types of bullying are important in relation to age and sex differences. Lagerspetz and Bjokqvist (1994) have studied Finnish children between the age of eight to eighteen years old. Despite that no differences were found in verbal bullying between boys and girls, boys (excluding young ones) were found to display more physical bullying while girls (excluding young ones) exhibited more indirect aggression (Monks & Smith, 2000).

Aggressive behaviours including bullying can have short and long term negative concerns such as suicide tendencies, isolation, depression, conduct disorders, delinquency, for the mental health and adjustment for victims (Coie & Dodge, 1998; Hawker & Boulton, 2000; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). The researchers in the field will be more able to plan effective intervention programs to alleviate the bullying problem and treat the consequences bullying have on mental health if they have a complete understanding of the factors involved in a child’s decision to bully.

Peer relations. One of the developing tasks of children is to cultivate positive relation with peer – a relation that comprises of mutual understanding, acceptance, fun, self- improvement and also dominance. But since conflict is an inevitable component of human relations, relation between peers can occasionally turn into act of aggression (Slee & Rigby, 1998). Both the nature and quality of school peer group is inviting substantial research attention. This is because school peer group is an essential source of nurturance and support. However, any disruption in the relation can affect a student’s physical and psychological welfare and nature of learning experiences (Bennet & Derevensky, 1995). It was found that there is a negative relation between the trend of being ill-treated and victimised and positive self-assessments of the number of friends and popularity (Slee & Rigby, 1993)

Sibling relations. Bullying between siblings is becoming a major source of concern for many families (Wolke and Samara, 2009). Children young enough for schools get tangled in physical aggression and continuous teasing (Dunn & Munn, 1985). Relationships between siblings are known to aid children in developing social skills, providing emotional support (Stormshak, Bellati, & Bierman, 1996) and act as a cushion in family hardships (Jenkins & Smith, 1990) such as violent parents or marital fights. Despite of the negative influence of sibling bullying and its dangerously obvious high rates of victimization, it has somewhat been overlooked in previous study, most probably because it occurs so frequently in most families (Goodwin & Roscoe, 1990). In a sample of 7th and 8th graders, Duncan (1999) found that about 30 % of the pupils were physically bullied by their siblings while 40% agree of bullying their siblings.

Bullying and Gender. Hallinan and Williams (1989) claimed that we can expect the prevalence of the negative effect on young children’s friendships to surpass race and other background physiognomies. Though rare, cross-gender friendships do occur during elementary schools. According to Hallinan and colleague’s research, friendship that went beyond ethnic and racial obstacles was from the same gender. During pre-school years, Fabes, Martin and Hanish (2003) found that female children looked for other girls as playmates because they prefer to be involved in unobtrusive activities which include cooperative roles while male children preferred to play with a large group of boys who share a need in active thrilling games like run, kick, roar, race, play-fight and knock down. Also, Theimer, Killen and Stangore (2001) studied the evaluations of preschool-aged children. They established that compared to the girls, the boys were less likely to evaluate exclusion of a child as negative.

Bullying and Ethnicity. One of the main reasons that children give for bullying others is that they are not similar either in the way they behave or in appearance (Terasahjo & Salmivalli, 2003). Race or ethnicity is one discernible way children can differ. Ethnicity is used to denote to variances in ancestry and lineage for which the primary cues are cultural (Slee & Rigby, 1998). Compared to race which comprises of a wide range of skin colour and other physical characteristics, ethnicity includes a catholic array of dialects, beliefs and customs. Past research (Wolke et al., 2001; Hanish & Guerra, 2000) have shown that there is a high chance for children to be victimised based on their race or ethnicity. Hanish and Guerra (2000) found evidence that minority groups’ likelihood of being bullied were higher than the ethnic majority groups. In their longitudinal study, they found that irrespective of grade (from 1st grade to 6th grade), there were a higher probability of victimisation of European – American and African – American pupils by peers than Hispanic pupils. Furthermore, the composition of schools in terms of race and ethnicity had an influence on European-American and African-American children. European-American children who attended homogeneous schools were less likely to experience peer victimization than those who attended heterogeneous schools. Also, African-American pupils who joined ethnically heterogeneous schools decreased their likelihood to be victims (Hanish & Guerra, 2000). However, there are many studies which did not find any differences. Same results were obtained in two different investigations by Moran, Smith, Thompson and Whitney (1993) and Boulton (1995a) with Asian and White children for age, gender and grade. There were no significant differences in in terms of having friends or peer ratings of students as victims or bullies. Nevertheless, a substantial number of Asian children reported racist name calling by children from other races. Siann and his associates (1994) studied the impact ethnic group had in bullying in schools in Scotland and England. Again, there were no significant differences in the levels of bullying and victimization between the ethnic groups. Still, when asked whether minority groups are bullied more than the majority, 75.4 % from the minority ethnic group said yes compared to a 49.6% from the majority. Likewise, in a multi ethnic/racial sample of Australian children from seventh to tenth grade, Nguy and Hunt (2004) observed that there were no variances in the frequency of bullying or being bullied, in the attitudes towards the outgroups and no differences in the reasons given by the majority and minority.

In this study, the researcher has focused especially gender and ethnicity. According to Aboud (1992), gender and ethnicity are the most important social group membership categories to develop in a child. Also, children more usually exclude someone from their peer group based on its gender (Maccoby, 1988 as cited in Killen & Stangor, 2001) and race/ethnicity (Aboud, 1992).

Moral Reasoning in children

The psychoanalytic theory and the social learning theory look at moral development as a procedure of embracing social norms. If moral code is not internalised and shared and empathy is not refined through inductive discipline, people would then neglect the rights of one another every time there are conflicts with their desires and would transgress whenever other people could not observe their behavior. Researchers even though they give support to different theories ask themselves the same question: When do children become capable of moral reasoning? For the last few years, with the cropping up of new methods and theories, there have been drastic changes (from global stage theory and more towards the domain-specific models) in the research on the moral judgment of children (Killen, 2007)

Global Stage Model. Piaget’s (1932-1965) early works on moral judgments of children were inspired by the cognitive-developmental perspective which is based on how children actively attend to and inter-relate numerous perceptions on situations in which social conflicts arise and thus are able to make moral judgments on the basis of notions they construct about justice and fairness (Berk, 2006). He identified two stages for the understanding of morals: the heteronomous and autonomous morality. In the first stage children look at moral rules as fixed, pragmatic and set by authority figures while in the second one, children’s moral reasoning is focused on fairness on ideal mutuality and they realise that rules can be flexible (Berk, 2006).

Lawrence Kohlberg’s global stage theory (three levels and 6 stages- see Figure 1) is an extension of Piaget’s work. According to him, moral development is a gradual process that outspreads childhood to adolescence and adulthood.

Figure 1 : Kolhberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Moral Domain Theory. On the other side, we have the Moral Domain Theory that argued that children have an undeveloped grip of justice as from age three. Elliot Turiel (1998) identified three domains of action: moral imperatives (based on how we should to treat one another and protecting people’s equal rights and welfare), social conventions (customs designed mainly by consensus and regulations determined in order for social institution function smoothly) and psychological ( personal choice of individual with an understanding of self, and others and believe that everyone has his/her own autonomy and independence (Berk, 2006; Ardila-Rey & Killen, 2001).

Smetana (2006) has recounted the changes with age that past research had found within the moral domain. Children determine that moral transgressions are immoral in any context by dynamically evaluating people’s daily social practices and emotive responses (Berk, 2006).

Social Information Processing Model (SIP). The approach of SIP (Crick & Dodge, 1994) helps us to understand meaningfully the development of aggressive behaviour (Orobio de Castro, 2004). The model suggests that to be able to respond in an appropriate manner to social cues, individuals have to process information in an orderly manner. First of all, a child will initially observe and try to understand the various hints from a social interaction to make sense of what happened and why it did. Then, guided by what he understood and relying on his previous exposure to similar interactions, he will opt for the simplest and most fitting objectives (Arsenio & Lemerise, 2004). Afterwards, the child will think of a range of likely reactions for the said situation and will weigh them according to his ability to produce those reactions, taking into account the different outcomes of what he intends to do. Eventually, he will reproduce what he has chosen. Depending on the conditions however, some infants might not go through all these steps before responding. For example, in circumstances where the child is very excited or is experiencing a strong emotion, he will probably act on impulse (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Indeed, angry children are known to express unfriendly characteristics and aims (Koops, & Veerman, 2003).

The circumstance, the person’s ability to process information and something called a “database” are all involved in how someone goes through the phases in the model. The database is where all the past experiences are held either as links, memories or organised patterns which are then needed on every information- processing phase. As the database gets updated through experiences, social information- processing tends to take place at a higher rate and more efficiently (Crick & Dodge, 1994; Dodge, 1993). Several studies relating to SIP in children who are either bullied or incited by their friends have been carried out and these show that hostile attitudes in children is associated with an abnormal encoding, interaction aims, production of a reaction and database schemata (e.g., Dodge, 1980, 1993; Dodge, Lochman, Harnish, Bates, & Pettit, 1997; Lochman & Dodge, 1998). Less reliable results have been obtained for representation. This has mainly been looked at by making sense of the motives behind other people’s behaviour (also called “hostile attribution bias”). A freshly conducted meta-analysis has shown that the attribution of motives and hostile behaviour are closely connected. However, all the research done on this subject have yielded very different results (Orobio de Castro, Veerman, Koops, Bosch, & Monshouwer, 2002).

SIP patterns have been found to be the link between early risks factors and future aggressive behaviour according to longitudinal studies (e.g., Pettit, Dodge, & Brown, 1988). Therefore, SIP by aggressive children is a goal for cognitive behavioural interventions to decrease behaviour problems. Interventions including SIP change (Hudley & Graham, 1993; Lochman & Wells, 2002) are quite good (Kazdin, 2003) as mediation analyses have shown that alterations in aggressive behaviour after these measures are in effect due to the changes in SIP (Lochman & Wells, 2002).

Integration of the models. The role of moral intentions and evaluations is a possible area of integration between domain and SIP models. In domain theory (and other cognitive moral models), the moral (or non-moral) type of the act is determined mainly by the children’s judgement about whether the act was harmful or not. Unlike the other model, SIP argues that it is the second step (among the six steps), which is interpretation of cues, whereby children make intentional attributions about how other people behaved. An example would be when a child experiences a negative social outcome, such as getting hit by a ball or not being allowed to take part in a game. In this instance, the child responds only after analysing the intention of others e.g. was the ball thrown at him/her deliberately? Is he or she sitting out the game since the maximum number of players had been reached or is it because others wanted to be rude?

Morally, during the early stage of SIP research, relevant intentions were a main area of interest. During his first research into social reasoning of aggressive and non-aggressive boys, Dodge (1980) found that the social response of the boys were largely subjective to their perspective of the instigators’ intentions leading to a negative outcome. The difference between the responses of the two groups appeared in situations where the provocateurs’ intentions were unclear. ”Aggressive children responded as if the peer had acted with a hostile intent. Nonaggressive subjects responded as if the peer had reacted with benign intent” (p. 162). There are various studies on intent judgements that have been carried out which back the idea that both group of children consider the equality and moral legitimacy of others’ actions to respond (Coie & Dodge, 1998). Retaliation is considered justified in the perspective of a child if he/she judges that the harmful action of a peer was both aggressive and unfair and it was created purposely (Astor, 1994). Therefore it is fair to say that both aggressive and non-aggressive children can be considered to share a fundamental moral value; it is not right for someone else to harm the child intentionally. But following SIP research suggested that this response may only be suitable to a subtype of aggression. Important motivational core which are lacking in cognitive theories of aggression are brought forward by both the SIP and domain models. For example, according to the SIP model, in the framework of socially challenging interpersonal circumstances, socially proficient children are more interested to relational goals such as preserving friendships whereas aggressive children have a tendency for instrumental goals such as being in control of an object or a situation. In both theories, it is implied that most children care about their relationships with others and are affected by the negative outcomes of aggressive and immoral behaviours experienced by others.

Intergroup Contact Theory. There is panoply of studies that show that increasing intergroup contact can be associated with a reduction in ingroup bias in children and adolescents. From the age three to ten years, children are opened to a wider range of social influences which include school and media, meaning that over time contacts with people from other groups (for example nationalities, ethnic groups, religions) will rise (Cameron et al.,2011). If they have regular contact towards the outgroup members, they will be more exposed to their lifestyles and behaviours which can help to promote tolerant attitudes. On the other side, children may develop adverse stereotypical opinions if they have restricted contact and hence a lack of knowledge of how the outgroups function (Ellison & Powers, 1994). Still, Allport (1954, as cited in Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006) postulate that fruitful intergroup contact can only occur in four conditions: equal status between the groups; collaboration to achieve common goals; no inter-group competition; and the support from authorities, regulations, or laws.

In one of the first longitudinal studies, for two years Stephan and Rosenfield (1978) observed White American children’s attitudes toward ethnic minority groups in school settings. More positive intergroup attitudes were found to result from an increase in inter-ethnic contact (as cited in Binder et al., 2009). Again in America, Brown (1986) showed a decrease in prejudice between black and white students. A scheme was applied where all students were given equal opportunities and little performance-streaming, and cooperation needed between students was increased (as cited in Hope, n.d.). Likewise, supportive research for Allport’s conditions was found in a study by Islam & Hewstone (1993) (as cited in Hope, n.d.). They found that less prejudicial attitudes towards students of Islamic and Hinduism beliefs were linked to the quality and quantity of interaction between them. Moreover, Wagner et al. (2003) confirmed Allport’s theory in their research with East and West German school students with a mean age of 15.5 years. The central role of intergroup friendship and the descriptive power of intergroup contact were found to elucidate the East-West variance in prejudice.

In another longitudinal study, Feddes, Noack and Rutland (2009) observed Turkish (minority) and German (majority) children’s intergroup attitudes among each other and their friendship. The latters had already spent at least 2 years together. The researchers found that over time, extended cross-ethnic friendship resulted in more negative outgroup evaluations than direct one. Pettigrew (1998) said that the development of friendship between the ethnics and the tolerant nature of the children were possible because the conditions echoed those of Allport (1954): support from school authorities and the maintenance of equal status by acknowledging of the Turkish language through language courses. Similarly, European-American majority children who made regular interactions with the minorities did not make ingroup bias, unlike the majorities who made little connection with the minorities as observed by McGlothlin and Killen (2006).

More recently, Crystal and colleagues (2008) wanted to find out how school children, who had various and different types of opportunities to make intergroup interaction, assess exclusion of mixed-ethnicity children. Exclusion by race was judged as immoral by both the minorities and the majorities, showing that having inter-racial friends alleviate the chance of racial exclusion (as cited in Ruck, Crystal et al., 2011). Likewise, Killen et al. (2010) studied how European-American children and adolescents assess, judge the exclusion of the minorities based on their race and how they explained the racial stereotypes. Results suggested that compared with the majority children (European-American) with lower levels of intergroup contact, those who made higher intergroup contacts were more likely to view exclusion of races as inappropriate and incorrect, to oppose and forbid stereotypes.

In 2003, in an attempt to study the link between moral reasoning and bullying, Menesini, Codecasa, Benelli and Cowie looked at how 10- and 13- year olds made emotional attributions and justifications in a fabricated study of a bully. Results showed that those who bully qualified the malefactor as proud and indifferent more frequently than those who were victims or not involved. Similarly, in a sample of 9- year olds, Perren, Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, Malti and Hymel (2011) found that bullies were more morally detached and justified less responsibly.

As mentioned earlier, race and ethnicity do influence assessments of bullying. In a survey with 265 European-American students from 6th and 9th grades, Margie (2007) studied the relationship between children’s personal involvements with bullying, their social reasoning and their Social Information Processing (SIP) and how race/ethnicity can have an impact. Their judgments, how the children justify themselves, their goals, attributions, their choices of response in both same (European-American) and cross race (African-American) peer interactions were assessed along with their experiences and encounters with bullying. Participants with frequent bullying experience assessed the actions of bullies as less wrong, tended to blame the victim for the action of the bully and also paid less attention to the feelings of the victim. They were more hostile and less confident in their answers and preferred less personal and more aggressive goals for the latter. Moreover, in reviews of Naito, Lin and Gielen (2001), children and adolescents from Eastern Asian countries tend to do moral reasoning more empathy-based with pro-social intents, a good understanding of normative beliefs, personal endorsement and feelings of culpability compared to those in Western Asian countries. The latter were more likely to reason in an egocentric and self-indulgent perspective. However, Matsui (1997) could not replicate the same results. He found that Japanese students (Eastern Asian country) were twice likely to give reasons full of empathy to help others (e.g., “I would feel sorry for the other person and want to help”) and less likely to voice reasons on their apprehensions about norms and rules as compared to students in the United States, South Korea, Turkey and China. In addition, Naito and colleagues (2001) found that in overall, the Japanese students are more likely to show a Western ‘individualistic’ reasoning compared to the other Eastern Asian countries who tend to show an Eastern “collectivistic” orientation.

In spite of having a robust link from theories (Killen & Nucci, 1995; Smetana, 2006; Wolke, Woods, Stanford, & Schulz, 2001) that bullying lies perfectly in the moral domain and is prone by social reasoning (Arsenio & Lemerise, 2004), insufficient studies have looked at the moral perspective of a child in the evaluation of bullying. Additionally, we do not have any empirical evidence of how moral reasoning is related to experiences with, even though abstract work advocates that the SIP influenced both of them (Arsenio & Lemerise, 2004).

However, past studies had some restrictions and limitations. To start with, they evaluate how bullies process social information only in provocative circumstances; that is they only consider what bullies would do, were they the victims. How do children who bully others process social information when they are bullying? For example, what are the social goals of the bully set against that of the bullied in a bullying situation? Also, these studies differentiate between groups of children based on whether they are the bullies or the victims. Whilst this approach takes into account those who bullies or are bullied to a large extent, it fails to capture the encounters of most children. Several of them who bully or are bullied in smaller frequency than those categorised as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims in these studies’. These experiences are very likely to have impact on their reasoning and processing regarding bullying circumstances. For that reason, it is essential to look into a range of experiences with bullies and/or victims. Only a few researches have studied the social reasoning of violent children using the social cognitive domain theory. In general, these studies dealt with the social reasoning of young offenders and children having behavioural disorder, who demonstrated a variety of antisocial behaviours, of which, only one could be aggression. More directly linked to bullying, Astor (1994) who made the comparison between the social reasoning of violent children and non-aggressive ones, found that the two groups of children uses different aspects of the moral domain to justify moral situations. Definitely, physically violent children unlike the non-violents, were more tended to think that physical retaliation was proper because it signifies fairness contrary to moral because of the harm inflicted on others (Astor, 1994). This research will focus on normal children, not just aggressive children with known delinquent behaviours and will look at the differences among normal children based on their experiences as victims and bullies. Also, preceding investigations on bullying focused mostly on physical aggression and exclusion, a non-physical form of aggression (Killen et al., 2002; Phinney & Cobb, 1996). There are several other forms of bullying such as teasing, taking others’ belongings, sending nasty messages, spreading rumours (and many other physical, verbal, relational and cyber bullying activities) that need to be examined.

This research is definitely a primary step to better understand the social reasoning of violent youngsters. The three main goals of the study are firstly to examine personal bullying experiences of the pupils based on their gender, ethnicity and grade, secondly to look at the relation between different bullying situations and children’s social reasoning and lastly to study the effect of the gender and ethnicity of the target on the children’s social reasoning. Altogether, this study delivers an opening for the analysis of bullying/victimization of siblings and most specifically peers within the ethnic and gender perspective. Some research has previously studied how the context ethnicity and gender are related to children’s judgments (Lawrence, 1991; Margie et al., 2005; McGlothlin & Killen, 2006; McGlothlin et al., 2005; Moller & Tenenbaum, 2011). Nonetheless, this study will address the limitations and boundaries of previous works. Lastly, preceding works on moral reasoning do not look at the features and characteristics of social cognition that are assumed to have a direct link on the behaviours of children in a social situation (similar to the steps of SIP). It will be better for the experts in the field to understand the prognoses of bullying behavior if they get an improved version of the reasoning and mental processes of children that follows cross-ethnic and cross-gender exchanges including bullying. The current study moved beyond social exclusion and physical bullying and addresses other different types of victimization. Additionally, this study surveyed developmental (gradual development of children from grade 2 to grade 6) and gender differences between reasoning and bullying/victimization. The children were presented with hypothetical circumstances in which a child (sibling or peer) was bein

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