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Buchsbaum, H.K. Emde, R.N. (1990). Play Narratives in 36-Month-Old Children—Early Moral Development and Family Relationships. Psychoanal. St. Child, 45:129-155.

(1990). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 45:129-155

Play Narratives in 36-Month-Old Children—Early Moral Development and Family Relationships

Helen K. Buchsbaum, Ph.D. and Robert N. Emde, M.D.


Whether there is significant moral development prior to the resolution of the oedipal conflict has been a source of debate between classic psychoanalytic and more recent clinical theories. We devised a play narrative technique, using standard story stems, to elicit 36-month-olds' representations of affective themes related to moral conflicts. Since morality is both influenced by interactions with significant others and involves dealing with the roles of others in the midst of conflict, we also explored narrative representations of the family. Results indicated that children as young as 36 months represent a considerable amount of moral development in narrative form. Children were able to articulate coherent stories about rules, reciprocity, empathy, and internalized prohibitions. Most remarkable was their ability to deal with alternative outcomes in order to resolve a moral dilemma. With respect to family relationships, the majority of the children represented a range of family figures who

served as reparative agents and who initiated prosocial interventions for conflict. Interestingly, the children portrayed less difficulty with separation from parents when the parents were physically absent than when they were present but not available. We conclude that our narrative story stem technique offers promising opportunities for learning more about early moral development and family relationships in 3-year-olds.

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