Stepping stones to others' minds : the relation between maternal mental and non-mental state input and social understanding in 15-, 24, and 33 month-old children
Recent research has shown that children under two years demonstrate some early social understanding. Previous research has also demonstrated that mother talk about mental states is a factor in older preschoolers' later theory of mind understanding. In order to learn more about the predictive nature of mother mental state talk to very young children, this study examined the relation between mother talk about mental states at 15 and 24 months and their later mental state language and emotion understanding at 24 and 33 months. At all three time points, 71 mothers and 3 fathers (N=74) described pictures to their infants and mother talk was coded for mental and nonmental state language at 15, 24 and 33 JnOnths. In addition, at all three time points, children's mental and non-mental state vocabulary levels were obtained via parental report. At the second and third time points the children were administered an emotion situation and a body emotion task. The mothers' ability to interpret emotion faces was also assessed. The results showed that mother use of desire language was more prevalent at 15 months, with references to thinking and knowledge increasing at 24 months. Partial correlations demonstrated that mother use of desire language with 15-month old children uniquely predicted a child's mental state language and emotion situation task performance at 24 months, even after accounting for earlier child language, mother socioeconomic status, mothers' own emotion understanding, and other types of mother nonmental state language. Similarly, at 24 months of age, after accounting for potentially confounding variables, such as child language, mother use of think/know language as well as desire language were both predictors of children's mental state language and emotion task performance at 33 months. The results further demonstrated that mothers' tendency to refer to the child's (versus others') desires at 15 months was the more consistent correlate of children's mental state language and emotion understanding at 24 months. At 24 months a different pattern emerged with both references to the child's and others' thoughts and knowledge correlating with child mental state language and emotion task performance at 33 months. It is proposed that Vygotsky' s zone of proximal development provides a framework within which maternal talk about specific mental states scaffolds the development of children's later social understanding. I also suggest that such scaffolding motivates mothers to talk more about the child's mental states when they are younger, before introducing talk that focuses on others' mental states.
Advisor: Ruffman, Ted
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis