Sometimes you might feel silly when you catch yourself talking to your baby in a sing-song voice. Or perhaps you have a lengthy conversation with your toddler but believe they can’t really sense how you’re feeling. They probably understand more than you realise thanks to an essential life skill called ‘theory of mind’.
This refers to our ability to go beyond our observations of people’s behaviours to making assumptions about the motivations, mental states and processes that underlie the behaviour, says Dr Sheila Degotardi from the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University.
“It’s often called ‘folk psychology because it’s the way people within western cultures tend to make sense of what other people are doing… We ask ourselves ‘What were they thinking? What were their opinions?’
“When children start to be able to do this it shows they are developing a deeper understanding of other people. That depth enables them to connect and socially interact with other people.”
Talking to your baby, they understand more than you realise
By the time they reach primary school, most children are well on their way to instinctively knowing that other people have beliefs, wants and thoughts that may be different to theirs. Theory of mind helps children read between the lines when they interact with others.
“Toddlers and babies might take something and hide it, or they tease or trick a parent or sibling. If they are doing that there is an understanding that ‘If I hide this the other person won’t know where it is’ or ‘If I tease them the other person will get annoyed’. It shows toddlers are getting beyond physical behaviour and are starting to think about what is happening in other people’s minds,” says Degotardi. Being able to get inside someone’s head is really important if we want meaningful communication.”
Sooner rather than later
Until now most research has looked at theory of mind development from the age of four, but Degotardi believes it takes root in children soon after they are born, and certainly from the age of about one. She says mothers play an important role in helping their babies and toddlers develop this vital life skill.
Degotardi studied 25 mothers and their children in Sydney. She first met the mums and babies when the children were 12 months old. She studied the parents and their children again at 18 months, 24 months and as the children neared their fourth birthday. During each visit, Degotardi spoke to the mothers about their babies’ characteristics and behaviour and she watched them interacting with their children. Degotardi also held one-on-one interviews to assess how strongly the women recognised their children as having feelings, wants and thoughts.
MORE THAN PHYSICAL “Mothers often thought about their babies as psychological beings and used more talk about what their babies wanted and what they were thinking,” explains Degotardi.
“They encouraged their children to be independent in their actions, encouraged autonomy and recognised the goals their babies showed in their play. This approach appeared to support the child’s theory of mind.
“If a mother felt that her baby was a thinking, feeling, wanting, sentient being, rather than just a physical being, she’d do things that would promote that understanding in the child.
Read part 2 here.
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