The way that mothers talk to their children when they are young has a lasting effect on children’s social skills, according to a research study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The researchers found that children whose mothers often talked to them about people’s feelings, beliefs, wants, and intentions, developed better social understanding than children whose mothers did not include much ‘mental state talk’ in their conversations.
The study, based at the University of Sussex, followed children from the age of 3 to the age of 12, measuring their ability to perform tasks designed to measure their social understanding. One of these tasks, developed by the researchers to test social understanding in middle childhood (from 8 to 12 years old), used clips from the TV comedy, ‘The Office’.
Dr Yuill, who led the later stages of the research, explains: “Ricky Gervais’s character, David Brent, is a typical example of someone who is very insensitive and reads social situations incorrectly. We cringe to watch it because we are embarrassed by his complete lack of social understanding.”
From the age of 8, the children in the study were beginning to cringe too, rating scenarios with David Brent’s faux pas as more embarrassing than those without and showing a good understanding of what he was doing wrong. By the end of the study, children did as well as mothers on this and other tasks measuring social understanding, showing that by the age of 12, children can be as socially sophisticated as adults.
The researchers also observed how each of the mothers talked to their child when they were 3 years old as they looked at a series of pictures together. They found that children whose mothers had often described the mental state of people in the pictures – their emotions or what they might be thinking or going to do next - did particularly well on the social understanding tasks.
The link between early mental state talk and the development of social understanding was strongest in early childhood and was independent of the mother’s IQ or social understanding. By the time the children were aged 8 to 12, the influence of early mother talk was less strong, probably, the researchers suggest, because older children are less dependent on their mothers and more likely to be influenced by their peers and other adults.
The study also revealed that understanding others is one thing, but behaving well towards them is another. The researchers were surprised to find that children with the most sophisticated social understanding also exhibited the most negative behaviour towards their mothers when they were steering a model car around a race track – a task where they needed to work together as a team.
“From our study, I certainly wouldn’t say that having a good social understanding guarantees good behaviour. Having a good social understanding is only part of the picture - it has to be used in socially beneficial ways,” said Dr Yuill.
Although its relationship to behaviour is complex, social understanding is an essential skill for interacting with others both at work and at play. And the findings of this study suggest that children who experience lots of mental state talk in their early years get the best start for developing this skill.
According to Dr Yuill, this has exciting implications for all those involved in bringing up children: “Using mental state talk is not hard. It does not require particularly good language skills or a sophisticated social understanding and it seems eminently teachable. It would be really interesting to work with people who run family learning programmes to explore whether teaching parents how to use mental state talk has a beneficial effect on their children’s social understanding” she said.
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