How parents can influence children’s understanding of others’ minds

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New research published in the journal Child Development has found a link between parental mind-mindedness and children’s understanding of others’ minds.

The study of 241 parent–child dyads from the United Kingdom and Hong Kong found both a cross-cultural difference in preschool children’s understanding of false beliefs in others and parents’ tendency to treat their children as individuals with minds (parental mind-mindedness).

Parents in Hong Kong offered fewer descriptions of their children’s mental attributes than did parents in the United Kingdom, and this was associated with reduced false belief understanding among the preschoolers in Hong Kong.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Claire Hughes of the University of Cambridge. Read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Hughes: Two other cross-cultural studies of pre-schoolers provided the starting point for this study. The first of these was conducted 10 years ago and showed that Chinese pre-schoolers outperformed their counterparts in the USA on tests of working memory, impulse control and cognitive flexibility, but were not better able to to understand mistaken beliefs (Sabbagh et al, 2006). This was surprising as meta-analytic evidence confirms that these two sets of cognitive skills typically develop hand in hand (Devine & Hughes, 2014). The second study was a meta-analysis that revealed that children living in Hong Kong pass false-belief tasks at a significantly later age than their peers in Mainland China (Liu et al, 2008).

To shed light on why this might be, we conducted the first cross-cultural study of theory of mind in pre-schoolers to adopt a two-generational design. Our rationale for this approach was that studies involving Western samples have shown that children’s ‘mindreading’ skills are accelerated when mothers are ‘mind-minded’ (i.e., likely to think about their children as agents with their own thoughts, feelings and interests – e.g., Meins et al, 2002); the literature on cross-cultural contrasts in parenting shows that Asian parents typically emphasise control and so may be less ‘mind-minded’ than Western parents. So two goals of our study were to assess whether there actually was a group difference in parental mind-mindedness and whether this might explain the expected group difference in children’s ‘mindreading’ skills.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Perhaps the single most important finding from our study was that the link between parental mind-mindedness and children’s mindreading ability appears to be culturally universal. Even though, as a group, mothers in Hong Kong described their children in ways that seemed less mind-minded than the UK mothers, variation in mind-mindedness within each country showed equally strong links with children’s mindreading.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

We still don’t know WHY maternal mind-mindedness should predict children’s performance on tests of mindreading. One possibility is that the same genetic factors contribute to maternal mind-mindedness and pre-schoolers’ false-belief performance. But there is lots of evidence (e.g., from twin studies, intervention studies and studies of deaf children) to suggest that the link is more likely to be environmental. So the next step is to conduct cross-cultural comparisons of the quality of mother-child interactions to see if these help explain the association between maternal mind-mindedness and pre-schoolers’ mindreading skills – and if so, whether the underlying mechanisms are also culturally universal.

The study, “Does Parental Mind-Mindedness Account for Cross-Cultural Differences in Preschoolers’ Theory of Mind?” was also co-authored by Rory T. Devine and Zhenlin Wang.