Psychologists at the University of York have revealed new evidence showing how specific language used by parents to talk to their babies can help their child to understand the thoughts of others when they get older.
Studying the effects of maternal mind-mindedness (the ability to ‘tune in’ to their young child’s thoughts and feelings), lead author Dr Elizabeth Kirk observed 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old.
Keeping a record of parental language while a mother and her child played for 10 minutes, psychologists logged every time the mother made ‘mind related comments’ – inferences about their child’s thought processes through their behaviour (for example, if an infant had difficulty with opening a door on a toy car, they could be labelled as ‘frustrated’).
Revisiting 15 mother-child pairs when children reached 5 – 6 years old, the child’s Theory of Mind (ToM) or socio-cognitive ability was assessed. Using the ‘strange stories’ method, the level at which the child was able relate to others and understand another person’s thoughts was recorded.
The strange stories method involves reading a fictional vignette to the child which poses one of 12 social scenarios (contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretend, joke, forget, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality or sarcasm).
Children are then asked a comprehension question followed by a test to prove whether they have understood the mental manipulation covered in the story. Results showed a strong, positive correlation between mind-related comments at 10, 12 and 20 months old and a child’s score on the strange stories task.
Therefore, children’s ability to understand the thoughts of other people when they were aged 5 was related to how mind-minded their mothers were when they were babies.
Dr Kirk, Lecturer in York’s Department of Psychology, said: “These findings show how a mother’s ability to tune-in to her baby’s thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathise with the mental lives of other people.
This has important consequences for the child’s social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.
“These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy. This also supports previous research led by psychologist Professor Liz Meins, who leads mind-mindedness research at York.”
About this psychology research
The research was conducted by Dr Elizabeth Kirk, University of York, and Lisa Wheatley, Karen Pine, Neil Howlett, Joerg Schulz and Ben Fletcher at the University of Hertfordshire.
Funding: The research was funded by the British Academy.
Source: Saskia Angenent – University of York Image Credit: The image is in the public domain Original Research:Abstract for “A longitudinal investigation of the relationship between maternal mind-mindedness and theory of mind” by Elizabeth Kirk, Karen Pine, Lisa Wheatley, Neil Howlett, Joerg Schulz and Ben C. Fletcher in British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Published online July 27 2015 doi:10.1111/bjdp.12104
A longitudinal investigation of the relationship between maternal mind-mindedness and theory of mind
Data are presented from a longitudinal investigation examining the relationship between maternal mind-mindedness (MM) in infancy and socio-cognitive development in childhood. We revisited children (n = 18) who had taken part in a longitudinal study as infants. MM had been assessed at 10, 12, 16, and 20 months of age. We followed up these children at 5–6 years of age to test their higher order theory of mind (ToM) (using the strange stories task). The convergent validity, temporal stability, and predictive validity of the construct of MM were examined in a longitudinal data set. The five measures of MM were not significantly correlated. Mother’s production of appropriate mind-related comments (but no other measures) showed evidence of temporal stability throughout infancy. Thus, MM (as measured by appropriate mind-related comments) was confirmed as a stable construct. Children’s ToM at 5–6 years of age was significantly predicted by their mother’s MM up to 4 years earlier, with MM accounting for 40% of the variance of the strange stories task scores. These findings identify a relationship between MM across a protracted period of infancy and socio-cognitive development at 5–6 years of age.
“A longitudinal investigation of the relationship between maternal mind-mindedness and theory of mind” by Elizabeth Kirk, Karen Pine, Lisa Wheatley, Neil Howlett, Joerg Schulz and Ben C. Fletcher in British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Published online July 27 2015 doi:10.1111/bjdp.12104