Psychologists from the University of York have demonstrated that the type of language used by parents, particularly mothers, while talking to their babies affects the children’s ability to comprehend the thoughts of others.

Determining The Association

Lead author Dr Elizabeth Kirk, Lecturer in York’s Department of Psychology, enrolled 40 mothers and their babies for the study. The babies were 10, 12, 16 and 20 months old. The idea was to study the effect of maternal mind-mindedness – ability to ‘tune-in’ to their babies thoughts and emotions.

The researchers kept records of parental language while mother and baby played together for 10 minutes. An entry was logged every time the mother made a ‘mind-related’ comment – an inference about the child’s thinking processes from his or her behavior. For example, if the baby was having difficulty opening the door of a toy car, the mother would infer that the baby was ‘frustrated’.

These mother-baby pairs were revisited when their children were five to six years old, and their socio-cognitive abilities were assessed. Researchers used the ‘strange-stories’ method – reading a fictional vignette to the child that contains any one of the following social scenarios: lies, contrary emotions, white lies, pretend, persuasion, joke, misunderstanding, forget, figure of speech, double-bluff, sarcasm or appearance versus reality.

At the end of the story, the children were made to answer comprehensive questions followed by a test to assess whether they had correctly understood the type of mental manipulation stated in the story.

Baby’s Brain Development: Deciphering The Results

Findings of the study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology indicate a significant, positive correlation between mind-related comments (when a child is 10, 12, 20 months old) and his score on the strange stories test. This suggests that a child’s ability to comprehend the thoughts of others, at the age of five, is strongly related to the mind-mindedness of their mothers when they were babies.

“These findings demonstrate 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”, Dr Kirk further explained.

Important Consequences

These results highlight the serious consequences of the lack of mother’s mind-mindedness could have on the social development of her child. The study highlights the critical role of mother-baby conservational skills during his/her upbringing.