Mother's Baby Talk Helps Kids Understand Others' Thoughts

New research suggests the specific language used by parents to talk to their babies appears to help the child better understand the thoughts of others when they get older.

Psychologists at the University of York studied the effects of maternal mind-mindedness (the ability to tune in to their young child’s thoughts and feelings) among 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old.

Researches recorded parental language while a mother and her child played for 10 minutes. The psychologists logged every time the mother made “mind-related comments” — inferences about their child’s thought processes through their behavior (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 five to six years old, the child’s Theory of Mind (ToM) or socio-cognitive ability was assessed. This was accomplished by use of an innovative technique termed the “strange stories” method.

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).

From this analysis, the psychologists recorded the level at which the child was able to relate to others and understand another person’s thoughts.

Children were 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 five was related to how mind-minded their mothers were when they were babies.

“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 empathize 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,” said the researchers.

Investigators believe the results are significant because they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy.

Source: University of York