Having close friends is the key to the development of moral sensitivity and empathy in young children. In interviews with 128 four-year-olds from a wide range of social backgrounds, children were asked to talk about issues such as name-calling, taking a toy away from somebody else and other kinds of behaviour that upset children.
In girls, moral sensibility is closely linked to understanding other peoples' feelings. In boys, it is "mind-reading" - predicting or explaining others' actions in terms of their thoughts or beliefs - that is the vehicle for their empathy.
Researchers found that while girls placed greater emphasis on personal relationships than boys, t was the children's social backgrounds which determined their judgments about what was acceptable behaviour and what was not. Those whose parents were more highly educated or in managerial or professional occupations were more inclined to judge transgressions as being unacceptable.
Both boys and girls, however, were more sensitive to the needs, welfare and thoughts of others when they had "significant others" of a similar age.
Moral Sensibility, Understanding Others and Children's Friendship Interactions in the Pre-school Period by Judy Dunn, Alexandra Cutting and Helen Demetriou, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 18(2)