Social Experiences

From infancy onward, children have a range of experiences that might either assist or retard their understanding of the social world, including the mental life of others. I consider three different types of experience separately though it will be clear that they are not independent of one another.

Family Interaction

A potentially rich milieu to learn about what others think and feel is the give and take of social interactions within the family. Through discussions, arguments, and negotiations with parents and siblings, children confront a variety of perspectives, both intellectual and affective, that over time may help them discover that other people may view the world differently than they do.

One question of considerable interest is the potentially positive effects of siblings on theory of mind development (see, however, Cole & Mitchell, 2000, and Cutting and Dunn, 1999). There are really two possibilities here. One is that what matters is the total number of siblings with whom the child has the opportunity to interact. This hypothesis is affirmed by research showing a positive relationship between number of siblings and performance on false belief tasks (Perner, Ruffman, and Leekam, 1994) and between family size and false belief even after partialling out the effects of child age and language ability (Jenkins & Astington, 1996). Alternatively, it is possible to argue, perhaps from a Vygotskian perspective, that older siblings are particularly important because they guide the younger child toward an understanding of other minds. A number of studies have found that the greatest advantage on false beliefs tasks falls to children with older siblings (Lewis, Freeman, Kryiakidou, Maridaki-Kassotaki, & Berridge, 1996; Ruffman, Perner, Naito, Parkin, & Clements, 1998; Ruffman, Perner, & Parkman, 1999; Youngblade & Dunn, 1995). Consistent also with a Vygotskian perspective, Lewis et al. (1996), who examined both the number of siblings and the broader social context in which their sample lived (e.g., number of adult kin and older nonrelated children who interact regularly with the child), suggested that researchers will achieve their best predictions for success on theory of mind tasks by examining the full ecology of the child's environment.

Beyond the size and structure, what particular types of family social interaction are especially important to theory of mind. The work of Dunn and her colleagues (Dunn, 1991; Dunn, Brown, Slomkowski et al., 1991; Dunn, Brown, and Beardsall, 1991) suggests that "mind reading" is deeply rooted in children's social experiences emerging from contexts that are not "emotionally neutral" but rather from situations in which the child is "intensely involved." Pretend play with others is one such experience but so too are the "social exchanges" that involve humor, threats to self-interest, and discussions of causality (Dunn, 1991, p. 58). In a pioneering study supporting this view, Dunn, Brown, Slomkowski et al. (1991) conducted home observations of children at 33 months, interacting with their mothers and siblings, then tested the children at 40 months on false belief and affective labeling (identifying basic emotions—happiness, sadness) and perspective taking (recognition of emotions that differ from the child's). They found a positive relationship between family talk about emotions and causal talk (e.g., "Don't jump, you'll break that.") at 33 months, and all three measures taken at 40 months, leading them to conclude that involvement in discussion about the social world promotes advances in social cognition. In that world, children express their own emotions, explore conflicts with siblings, and hear parents sort out disagreements. Additionally, there is reason to believe that this emotional caldron may have relatively long term effects. For example, Dunn, Brown, and Beardsall (1991) showed that among 3-year-olds the frequency and diversity of emotional state talk with mothers and has a strong relationship to affective perspective taking at age 6 years.

Mental State Talk

In the past few years, researchers have focused attention on the relationship between parent's discussion of mental states and children's understanding of theory of mind, including knowledge of emotions (Garner, Jones, Gaddy, & Rennie, 1997; Peterson & Slaughter, 2003; Ruffman, Perner, & Parkman, 1999; Ruffman, Slade, & Crowe, 2002). In one study related to the family interaction style noted above, Ruffman et al. (1999) asked mothers of 3-year-olds to respond to questions about how they would discipline their children for selected transgression. They noted a positive relationship between the reported frequency of mothers asking their children to reflect on the feelings of others ("How would you feel if he did that to you?") and the children's performance on false belief tasks. Using a similar methodology, Peterson and Slaughter (2003) found a strong positive correlation between preschooler's performance on a false belief task and their mothers' tendency to select a mentally elaborated conversational style (frequent references to thoughts and feelings) in response to everyday problems portrayed in a series of hypothetical vignettes. Two other studies relied on mothers' responses to story books or pictures. Garner et al. (1997) asked a sample of low-income mothers to "read" a story book with no accompanying text to their young children who were also given a test of emotion understanding. Children whose mothers both referred to and explained the reasons for the emotional scenarios in the book scored higher on emotion understanding. Finally, in a study designed to address the direction of the relationship between mothers' mental state talk and children's theory of mind understanding, Ruffman et al (2002) asked mothers to describe pictures of people in everyday situations (e.g., mother bathing a baby) to their 3-year-old children at three different time points over roughly a 1-year period. At each time point, the authors also assessed the children's language ability and theory of mind understanding. Mothers' descriptions of the pictures were coded for mental state language, that is, descriptions that made reference to the depicted characters desires, emotions, and beliefs. The authors found that mothers' mental state utterances at the early time points (time 1 and time 2) predicted children's theory of mind performance at the later time points (time 2 and time 3), and, importantly, that the reverse relationship, (children's theory of mind predicting mother's mental state talk) did not hold. Additional analyses controlled for a number of possible mediating relationships, such as mothers educational level and children's age and language ability (including their use of mental terms), leading Ruffman et al. (2002) to propose a causal relationship between mother's mental state language and children's belief understanding.

Another important line of research on mental state talk comes from the work of Meins and her colleagues who have identified a maternal style emerging in infancy, known as mind mindedness, as a predictor of children's theory of mind (Meins, 1998; Meins & Fernyhough, 1999; Meins, Fernyhough, Wainwright, Das Gupta, Fradley, & Tuckey, 2002; Meins, Fernyhough, Wainwright, Clark-Carter, Das Gupta, Fradley, & Tuckey, 2003). Mind mindedness is the tendency to treat the child as an individual with a mind and not simply as an organism whose needs must be satisfied (Meins, 1998). Mothers who exhibit this characteristic tend to focus on the children's mental attributes rather than on their physical or behavioral attributes. Using maternal characterizations of children's language as well as general descriptions of children's behavior, Meins and Fernyhough (1999) demonstrated that mothers are consistent from 20 months to 3 years in their tendency toward mind mindedness and that mind mindedness relates positively to theory of mind performance at 5 years. Subsequent work showed that as early as 6 months mothers use mental state language in free play with their children and that appropriate use of such language predicts theory of mind performance at 45 and 48 months, with path analyses suggesting a direct link between appropriate maternal mind-related comments in infancy and theory of mind understanding at 48 months (Meins, Fernyhough, Wainwright, Das Gupta, Fradley, & Tuckey, 2002; Meins, Fernyhough, Wainwright, Clark-Carter, Das Gupta, Fradley, & Tuckey, 2003).


Attachment theory offers a different though related perspective on mental state talk and one that elevates maternal sensitivity to the forefront. Mothers who talk to their children about thoughts and feelings adopt a parenting style that is both attuned to their children's emotional needs and one that is likely to promote mental state knowledge (Meins, 1998). Furthermore, because maternal sensitivity emerges in infancy, proponents of attachment theory predict that individual differences in the quality of infant-mother bonding will influence children's subsequent understanding of mental states (Fonagy & Target, 1997; Harris, 1999). Fonagy and Target (1997) elaborate this notion arguing that theory of mind is a key component of the "reflective function," a mental activity that "organizes the experience of one's own and others' behavior in terms of mental state constructs . . . that give rise to beliefs and emotions" (Fonagy & Target, 1997, p. 80). The reflective function is hypothesized to develop through early social experience that at core are influenced by the quality of the attachment relationship. In their empirical work, Fonagy and colleagues' support their claim using two different measures of attachment. In one, security of attachment at 1 year, as measured by the Strange situation, predicted comprehension of complex emotions at age 6 years (Steele, Steele, Croft, & Fonagy, 1999). In another, children rated as securely attached on the Separation Anxiety Test (pictures of parent-child separation scenes) were far more likely to pass a false belief emotion task than children rated as insecure (Fonagy, Redfern, & Charman, 1997). DeRosnay and Harris (2002) also found that attachment security, as measured by the Separation Anxiety Test, reliably predicted preschool children's performance on both a neutral emotion understanding task and a charged understanding task that invoked a separation theme.

In short, a mother's tendency to talk to her children about mental states, to be mind minded in Meins' terms, may be important to theory of mind primarily because it reveals psychological sensitivity toward her child (Harris, in press). Mothers of securely attached children develop ways of communicating that promote a sense of agency and independence in their children (DeRosnay & Harris,

2002). Proponents of attachment theory believe that there is stability to this communication style, and that over time it becomes consequential for children's understanding of beliefs and emotions. In this vein, Meins and colleagues report that at age 3 years children who were previously classified as securely attached in infancy had mothers who were more sensitive in tutoring them on difficult tasks than were the mothers of infants classified as insecurely attached, and that by age 4 years the securely attached children performed reliably better on false belief tasks than did the insecurely attached children (Meins, Fernyhough, C., Russell, J., & Clarke-Carter, 1998).

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