The Minds Of Minors

Rebecca Schwarzlose surveys research about how children develop a theory of mind, or “the ability to reason about other people’s thoughts and emotions”:

Studies have shown that when mothers refer more often to mental states (thoughts, emotions, and desires) in conversations with their young children, these children tend to perform better on theory of mind tests a few years down the line. But is this effect just a matter of learning a few keys words a little sooner or can it lead to long-lasting differences in theory of mind ability? Rosie Ensor, Claire Hughes, and their colleagues at University of Cambridge tackled this question by testing children over the course of eight years. … They found that the number of times mothers used ‘thought words’ with their two-year-olds predicted the children’s performance on theory of mind tests at six and ten years of age. …

Will talking to a two-year-old about others’ thoughts and beliefs make a child better at social reasoning down the line? It’s hard to say. These latest results are based on correlations and can’t prove that one thing causes another. Still, they are intriguing and suggestive. Encouraging young children to think about others’ beliefs and feelings may strengthen theory of mind abilities or simply get children into the habit of considering others’ thoughts in ways that persist into their middle-school years.