How Does Being Compassionate or Cautious Influence Adolescent Development?

Adolescents receive various messages from their mothers. But a new study, led by Laura Wray-Lake of the School of Behavioral and Organization Sciences at Claremont Graduate University, suggests that messages of caution and compassion have a particularly significant influence on the socialization and behaviors of teens. Compassion messages are inferences that people should all be treated with respect and value, whereas caution messages teach children to be wary of the world and people around them. Wray-Lake and her colleagues looked at several factors that influenced the value messages of the mothers, specifically, socioeconomic status (SES), neighborhood cohesion, family construct, and age and gender of the teens.

SES is particularly relevant to value messages. Studies have shown that mothers from lower SES communicate more messages of caution to their teens. This is due in part to the perception of higher crime and availability of drugs. Mothers in these underprivileged neighborhoods believe their children are at greater risk of harm, violence, or drug use than mothers in more cohesive neighborhoods. Conversely, mothers from a higher SES tend to use value messages demonstrating compassion more often than caution messages.

Wray-Lake interviewed 1,933 students from 5th to 12th grade over a 3-year period. She found that the construct of the family and stability of family cohesion was directly related to compassion value messages. As she theorized, Wray-Lake also discovered that low SES led to more caution messages. Surprisingly, the study revealed no level of change in compassion messages when the mothers realized their children were being bullied. Rather than increasing their compassion messages to their children, the mothers decreased them, suggesting that mothers instinctively want to protect their children from attack rather than offering kindness to the aggressor. The study also demonstrated positive effects of religiosity on compassion. Wray-Lake added, “Further examining contextual influences on socialization messages may bring important insights into contextual and cultural variations in parenting and adolescent development.”


Wray-Lake, L., Flanagan, C. A., Maggs, J. L. “Socialization in Context: Exploring Longitudinal Correlates of Mothers’ Value Messages of Compassion and Caution.” Developmental Psychology 48.1 (2012): 250-56. Print.

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  • eliza


    January 23rd, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    what parents,and especially mothers,teach kids can have a big effect on them.while the cautious approach of those from lower SES is understandable,we should also not forget that anybody is prone to harm and everybody should really try and caution their kids to keep them safe.

  • Holly


    January 24th, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    My own parents mixed in caution with compassion and quite honestly I think that me and my sister turned out way better in terms of being able to jusdge others and those that we wanted to hang out with way better then some others we knew. I just seemed to have a better feel for who was going to be a good friend and who was just going to get us in trouble.

  • Tucker


    January 24th, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    Parents are charged with walking that fine line of giving their kids just the right balance of everything that they need. It is hard to know exactly how much or how little of one thing that they need while not leaving something else out. Tricky indeed.

  • daniel


    January 24th, 2012 at 9:54 PM

    well I have to agree with the findings here.and I would also like to add that parental supervision and words have a big role to play in how a child turns out to be.yes independence and freedom are important but do issupervision!

  • jr


    January 25th, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    Is there a such thing as making your kid too cautious?

    I have seen some kids who are afraid of their own shadows and I think that this is in large part due to parents who are way too overprotective

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