Mothers can help children 'put themselves in others' shoes'

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Young children whose mothers talk with them in detail about people's thoughts and feelings are better at seeing another's perspective than other children of the same age, according to a new study.

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Researchers from the University of Western Australia observed more than 120 Australian children between the ages of four and six, with either typically developing language or delayed language over a two year period.

The children were asked to complete tasks designed to assess their language skills, their ability to infer others’ beliefs and use these to predict others’ behaviour, as well as their ability to flexibly shift between different perspectives.

The children’s mothers were also asked about the types of language they used with their children.

The findings revealed that the mums who talked more often and in greater detail about people’s thoughts and feelings - for instance commenting on how another person might react to a particular situation, as well as their own feelings about the same topic - had children with better language skills and better perspective-taking skills.

Children with delayed language were less able to see things from another’s perspective, although this wasn’t always due to their mothers’ use of language.

The researchers say that the findings suggests that mothers’ use of detailed language about people’s thoughts, influences their children’s language ability and cognitive flexibility, which in turn influences their development of theory of mind, a key factor in learning to take another’s perspective.

Brad Farrant at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia, who led the study, said, ‘Parents who frequently put themselves in someone else’s shoes in conversations with their children make it more likely that their children will be able to do the same.’

The study, How Moms' Talk Influences Children’s Perspective-Taking Ability, is published in the journal Child Development.

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