How mental state talk helps kids learn about beliefs, feelings, and the perspectives of other people
© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Young children aren’t as sneaky or as sophisticated as older kids are. For example, it seems unlikely that kids under the age of three grasp the cognitive and moral implications of telling lies (Talwar and Lee 2008).
But there is ample scientific evidence that young children have
active, developing, socially-oriented minds—right from birth.
And it seems that kids are better off when we treat them as creatures with more than mere physical needs.
That’s what psychologists Elizabeth Meins and Charles Fernyhough have proposed. Parents who are “mind-minded” treat their children as individuals with minds. When in doubt, they act as if their children’s acts are meaningful—motivated by feelings, thoughts, or intentions.
For instance, the mind-minded parent is more likely to act as if a baby’s vocalizations represent an attempt to communicate.
Mind-minded parents may also be more likely to
• Pay attention to their baby’s gaze and interest in objects
• Imitate their infant’s actions
• Engage in sensitive, appropriate mind-minded talk—-i.e., comment on what a child seems to be feeling or thinking. For example, a parent who sees her baby looking at a toy camel might ask the baby “Do you remember seeing a camel at the zoo?” (Meins et al 2001).
• Assume that their children can understand and benefit from conversations about emotions and mental states
What does this approach do for us?
Mind-minded parenting might strengthen our attachment relationships.
In one study, Meins and colleagues watched 6-month-old babies play with their mothers and recorded the incidence of mind-related talk (Meins et al 2001). The researchers were particularly interested in appropriate comments, i.e., talk that revealed an accurate understanding of what the baby was feeling.
The researchers found that appropriate mind-minded comments predicted secure attachments. Moms who made more frequent, appropriate comments at 6 months were more likely have securely-attached babies at 12 months.
Mind-mindedness may also help kids reason about the emotions and beliefs of others.
One hallmark of our species is that we possess a theory of mind—-an understanding that other creatures have goals, desires, beliefs, and emotions.
Theory of mind develops gradually over the first few years of life, and it can be measured in several ways. One important test is the false belief task, which asks a child to distinguish between what’s really true and what seems to be true to another, mistaken, person.
Do kids raised by mind-minded parents have an easier time developing a theory of mind?
In a study that tracked children for over three years, Meins and Fernyhough assessed mind-mindedness in mothers of 20-month-old toddlers (Meins and Fernyhough 1999).
The researchers scored moms as highly mind-minded if they were more willing to attribute meaning to their children’s nonstandard vocalizations. Moms were also deemed more mind-minded if they spontaneously used mental terms when describing their children (i.e., “Charlie wants to be like his big brother.”)
When the kids reached 5 years of age, the researchers presented them with a puppet show that tested a child’s understanding of false belief.
In the show, kids watched Charlie the Crocodile empty a milk cartoon and refill it with soda pop. Next, Penny the Penguin—who didn’t witness the act—came along.
The researchers told kids that Penny likes milk, not soda pop. Then they asked kids to predict how Penny would feel when she first saw the cartoon. Would she be happy or sad? And how would she feel after she looked inside the cartoon and found that there was soda pop, not milk, inside?
The kids who correctly predicted Penny’s feelings (i.e., that she’d be happy at first, and then disappointed) were the ones whose moms who had showed more mind-mindedness when they were toddlers.
These findings are consistent with other research on theory of mind and family talk about mental and emotional states.
In an observational study, Dunn and colleagues watched kids (aged 33 months) as they interacted at home with their parents and siblings (Dunn et al 1991b). Later, when the kids were 40 months old, they were given a false belief task (similar to the one described above) and a task that tested their understanding of emotions.
The researchers found that kids performed better on these tests if they came from families that frequently discussed feelings and the ways that feelings motivate behavior.
A similar study asked 6-year-olds to describe the emotions portrayed by adult actors in several videotaped vignettes (Dunn et al 1991a). The kids with the best understanding of emotions were the ones who had experienced the most family talk about emotional causation when they were 3 years old.
Another study observed mothers reading stories to their young children (ages 3 to 5 years) and noted which mothers used “cognitive state verbs” (like “think”) to describe events in these stories (Adrián et al 2007). Researchers had the kids complete false belief tasks and then, one year later, administered a second set of follow-up tests.
The kids who showed a stronger understanding of mental states at follow-up were more likely to have had moms who used cognitive verbs during story-telling.
And a longitudinal study tracking kids from 15 to 33 months of age reported that maternal mind-minded talk during the early years was the most consistent predictor of a child’s use of mental state language (Taumoepeau and Ruffman 2008).
What about causation?
These studies report correlations only. They don’t permit us to conclude that mind-minded parenting causes kids to form more secure attachments or develop better theory of mind skills. Maybe mind-minded parents possess genetically-based traits that make them better mind-readers (Sabbagh and Seamans 2008). If so, the links between mind-minded parenting, attachment security, and theory of mind might be explained solely by the inheritance of these “mind-minded” traits.
But there is at least one experiment that addresses this possibility.
Mental talk and theory of mind: An experiment on preschoolers
Learning to talk about the difference between appearances and reality
If you are trying to work out another person’s perspective, it helps to have a good vocabulary for discussing mental and emotional states. Heidemarie Lohman and Michael Tomasello tested this idea by introducing 3-year-olds to “deceptive” objects, like a pen that takes the shape of a plastic flower.
First, researchers measured each kid’s understanding of false beliefs. Could these kids grasp that other people sometimes believe things that aren’t true? Then kids were divided into two groups. One group received training in the language of mental states. An adult talked to them about the deceptive nature of the objects, using terms like “think” and “know.” For example, the adult might ask “What do you think this is?...You thought it was a flower….”
Kids in the other group experienced similar sessions, but the adult didn’t use mental state terms (“What’s this?...It’s a flower…”)
After these training sessions, the researchers re-tested kids’ grasp of false beliefs. The results supported the idea that mental state language helps kids learn. Kids trained with mental state language performed better on a false belief task. They also showed a better understanding of the distinction between appearance and reality.
This experiment didn’t involve the children’s parents at all, so it suggests that exposure to language about mental states is intrinsically helpful.
If so, we’d expect that parents who use more mental state language are helping their kids learn about the mind. This, in turn, might help kids become more sensitive to other people. And when parents and kids show more sensitivity to each other, we might expect kids to develop more secure attachment relationships.
References: Mind-minded parenting
Adrián JE, Clemente RA, and Villanueva L. 2004. Mothers' use of cognitive state verbs in picture-book reading and the development of children's understanding of mind: a longitudinal study. J Genet Psychol. 165(3):293-309.
Dunn J, Brown J, and Beardsall L. 1991a. Family talk about feeling states and children’s later understanding of others’ emotions. Developmental Psychology 27: 448-455.
Dunn J, Brown J, Slomkowski C, Tesla, C and Youngblade L. 1991b. Young children’s understanding of the other people’s feelings and beliefs: Individual differences and their antecedents. Child Development 62: 1352-1366.
Lohmann H and Tomasello M. 2003. The role of language in the development in false belief understanding: A training study. Child Development 74: 1130-1144.
Meins E, Fernyhough C, Fradley E, and Tuckey M. 2001. Rethinking maternal sensitivity: Mothers’ comments on infants’ mental processes predict security of attachment at 12 months. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Discipline 42: 637-648.
Meins E, and Fernyhough, C. 1999. Linguistic acquisitional style and mentalising development: The role of maternal mind-mindedness. Cognitive Development 14: 363-380.
Sabbagh MA and Seamans EL.2008. Intergenerational transmission of theory-of-mind. Dev Sci. 11(3):354-60.
Talwar V and Lee K. 2008. Social and cognitive correlates of children's lying behavior. Child Development 79(4):866-81.
Taumoepeau M and Ruffman T. 2008. Stepping stones to others' minds: maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotion understanding at 15, 24, and 33 months. Child Dev. 79(2):284-302.
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