Research published in Psychology: Research and Review points to the importance of early maternal touch for a child’s development of morality. Across three studies, receiving more affectionate touch during childhood was positively associated with sociomoral outcomes such as empathy and social engagement.
Scholars have long documented the importance of early touch experiences in physiological and psychological development. Affectionate touch from caregivers is crucial during infancy, and a lack of such care has been associated with harmful outcomes such as sensory, social, and psychological deficits.
Study authors Darci Narvaez and her team proposed that by influencing neurobiological systems, touch likely contributes to the development of interpersonal processes like sociality and morality. In three separate studies, the researchers explored whether touch during infancy would be associated with children’s moral capacity.
In an initial cross-sectional study among 156 mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 5, it was found that a mother’s positive attitude toward touch (e.g., hugging a child when he/she is distressed) was positively linked to a child’s social thriving (e.g., concern after wrongdoing, social enjoyment) and negatively linked to anti-social behavior (e.g., social withdrawal, misbehavior). Additionally, mothers’ attitudes toward corporal punishment were negatively linked to children’s social thriving and positively linked to anti-social behavior.
To gain insight into how touch behaviors influence child outcomes over time, the researchers next conducted a longitudinal study using data from a 3-year project among at-risk mothers and their children. Home interviews, including observations of mother-child interactions, were conducted at various time points when the children were between 4 months and 3 years of age.
Overall, the researchers found that an absence of negative touch, compared to the provision of positive touch, had a greater impact on children’s prosocial and problematic behavior. For example, mothers with fewer negative touch behaviors when children were 1.5 years old subsequently rated their children as having greater social competence and fewer externalizing problems at age 3.
Positive touch behaviors seemed to have a stronger impact on a child’s behavioral regulation. Mothers who displayed more positive touch when the children were 1.5 years old had children with greater behavioral regulation at the time and greater social competence at ages 2 and 3.
Notably, both studies controlled for a mother’s responsivity to her child’s needs, suggesting that the above effects were tied specifically to mothers’ touch behavior, and not simply the result of sensitive parenting.
A final study found evidence that the impact of early touch extends into adulthood. The retrospective study found that positive touch in childhood was associated with greater wellbeing, moral capacity, and moral orientation in adulthood. Furthermore, mediation analysis suggested that attachment security, mental health, and moral capacity mediated the relationship between touch and adult moral orientation. This suggests a pathway whereby early touch promotes the psychological processes necessary for moral capacities and orientations in adulthood.
“The findings, though preliminary, suggest that experiences with touch in early life may shape adult capacities for getting along with others and the type of ethical orientation they bring to social relationships—open or bracing,” Narvaez and team say.
Overall, the findings point to the influential role of early touch in sociomoral development. As the study’s authors put it, “Quite possibly, the extent to which we see ourselves as engaged with and responsible for the health and wellbeing of others might be partly owing to the physical affection and/or corporal punishment we have experienced, particularly in early life.”
The study, “The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development”, was authored by Darcia Narvaez, Lijuan Wang, Alison Cheng, Tracy R. Gleason, Ryan Woodbury, Angela Kurth, and Jennifer Burke Lefever.