You might think you're just playing with your baby. But play —and particularly the language attached to it — can be teaching invaluable lessons. A new study suggests you could actually be nurturing important social skills and empathy in later life. Researchers at the University of York in the U.K. have discovered that the language used by parents to talk to their babies can help children develop an understanding of the thoughts of others as they get older.
We've already seen how the interaction of mothers differs from that of fathers. Now, psychologists at York are looking at ways in which parents are able to connect or "tune in" to their babies' thought processes. Using what the scientists call "maternal mind-mindedness," mothers help their offspring to identify key psychological markers by making "mind-related comments" each time they see their baby experience an important moment. The mother may, for example, use the word "frustrated" when the door of a toy car won't open or "happy" when the child laughs.
Lead author Dr. Elizabeth Kirk observed 40 different mothers as each played with her baby for a series of 10-minute periods and kept a record of the parental language. These records were taken at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months old. Kirk then revisited 15 of the mother-child pairs when the children had reached the age of 5 or 6.
To measure the child's socio-cognitive ability — or Theory of Mind (ToM) — the researchers used the "strange stories" method. The children were each read a story that used one of 12 social scenarios — contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretending, joking, forgetting, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality or sarcasm — and were then tested on their understanding. The children were asked a comprehension question to be sure they had followed along and were then given a test to see if they understood the mental manipulation covered in the story.
The results showed how much each child was able to relate to others and understand another person's thoughts. Crucially, the scientists noticed a strong, positive correlation between mind-related comments at 10, 12 and 20 months old and a child's score on the strange stories test. Each child's ability to understand the thoughts of other people when they were aged 5 was directly related to how "mind-minded" their mother had been when he or she was a baby.
"These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy," says Kirk. "[They] 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."