|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
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.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Dr Nicola Yuill (Tel: 01273 678630, email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr Amanda Harris (Tel: 01273 678501, email: A.L.Harris@sussex.ac.uk )
ESRC Press Office:
Saskia Walcott (Tel: 01793 413149, email: email@example.com)
Danielle Moore (Tel: 01793 413122, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeanine Woolley (Tel: 01793 413119, email: email@example.com
NOTES FOR EDITORS:
1.This release is based on the findings from 'The relation between
parenting, children's social understanding and language' ( Grant
number: RES-000-23-0278), a study funded by the Economic and Social
Research Council. The research was led by Dr Nicola Yuill and Dr Ted
Ruffman at the Department of Psychology, University of Sussex.
2.The study involved interviews, questionnaires, assessments of
social understanding and observation of mental state talk between
mothers and children. At the beginning of the study 82 children and
their mothers took part but some families dropped out later in the
study due to child or parent illness or to moving out of the study
area. The researchers maintain contact with the 57 families who took
part in the last stage of the study and all these families have
expressed willingness to be visited again.
3.The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's
largest organisation for funding research on economic and social
issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an
impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's
planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time
the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in
academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
4.The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by
evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This
research has been graded as good.