Children’s Social Understanding
In order to understand behaviour and hence our social world, we must understand that people are motivated to act on the basis of their underlying desires, knowledge and beliefs about the world. Furthermore, as adults we can interpret behaviour based on our understanding that people are motivated by the contents of their mind that might differ from one’s own. One of the difficulties in understanding the mind is that the contents of the mind are unobservable. The question that has concerned developmental psychologists for many years is how children develop an understanding of others’ minds.
Parent-child conversations about mental states
Being able to talk about the mind is an important step in gaining access to others’ minds and the understanding that a person’s perspective on the world might be different from one’s own.
In my research I examine how language that refers to the mind assists very young children in their social understanding. I measure children’s social understanding in a variety of ways, including their understanding of mental state terms, emotion understanding and perspective taking. I am especially interested in how incremental and differential exposure to mental state language in toddlerhood scaffolds a child’s understanding of what it means to hold a mental state. Parents who refer to mental states in their conversations with their children positively influence their children’s social understanding. Importantly, however, is the finding that initially, mental state language that refers to the child’s desires is more helpful than talk that refers to another’s cognitions. We think that children gradually build on their knowledge of the mind incrementally through the scaffolded discussions they have with their parents.
In my lab we are continuing to explore how conversations parents have with their toddlers influence children’s ability to understand their social world. In particular, we are exploring how the child’s early cognitive development such as their self awareness, influences the propensity to benefit from conversations that refer to mental states. Our work suggests that a child’s ability to recognize themselves as a person is a crucial pivot point that enables them to benefit from references to what other people might think.
Culture and social understanding
Very few studies have examined parent-child conversations in non-Western cultures. If children construct an understanding of their social world through conversations about mental states, it seems important to examine how different language socialiszation practices might influence the tendency to refer to mental states. Our most recent longitudinal study examines the types of conversations Pacific Island families have with their children between the ages of 15 and 39 months. Our initial findings suggest that the degree of ethnic identity influences parents’ tendency to refer to their child’s mental states. Furthermore, we find that siblings in this Pacific island sample play an important role in toddlers’ understanding of their social world. These findings suggest the possibility of alternative and more distributed pathways to children’s social understanding.
The Health Research Council of New Zealand
Taumoepeau, M. (in press). Maternal expansions of child language relate to growth in children's vocabulary: A longitudinal study. Language Learning and Development.
Taumoepeau, M (2015). Strength of ethnic identity and caregiver-toddler conversations about mental states. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 46, 1168-1190
Taumoepeau, M & Ruffman, T. (2016). Children’s self awareness moderates the relation between maternal mental state talk and children’s mental state vocabulary: An intervention study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 144, 114-129
Taumoepeau, M. & Reese, E. (2014). Understanding the self through siblings: Self awareness mediates the sibling effect on social understanding. Social Development, 23, 1-18
Taumoepeau & Ruffman (2008). Stepping stones to others’ minds: Maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotion understanding at 15, 24 and 33 months. Child Development, 79, 284-302.
Taumoepeau & Ruffman (2006). Mother and infant talk about mental states relates to desire language and emotion understanding. Child Development, 77, 465-481.