Mind-reading for beginners

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A parent's ability to tell when their baby finds something boring or funny - their 'mind-mindedness' - is a strong predictor of their child's early development, says Professor Elizabeth Meins


Professor Elizabeth Meins: 'What parents talk about when interacting with their young babies predicts children’s development at least over the first decade of their lives'

Most parents and caregivers instinctively believe that responding sensitively and promptly to their babies is a marker of optimal parenting. It is also generally agreed, at least in Western cultures, that talking to babies is important for their development.

Over the last 20 years, my research has shown something a little more surprising: what parents talk about when interacting with their young babies predicts children’s development at least over the first decade of their lives. Even more surprisingly, the content of parents’ early baby talk appears to be a stronger predictor of children’s development than how sensitively parents respond to their babies or the quality of the parent–child relationship.

The crucial component we have identified in parents’ talk is their tendency to read their babies’ minds by commenting on what their babies want, like, hate, remember, or find fascinating, funny, surprising or boring. While caregivers typically feel that they are good at interpreting their babies’ needs, our research has shown striking differences in how accurate parents are at reading their babies’ minds. I coined the term ‘mind-mindedness’ to describe parents’ ability to tune in to their babies’ thoughts and feelings and see the baby’s behaviour as providing a window onto his or her mind.

Mind-mindedness is indicated by the parent commenting accurately on what the baby is thinking or feeling—saying that the baby wants the ball if she reaches toward it, or likes the toy monkey if he smiles when he sees it. In contrast, comments about the baby’s mind that indicate a misreading of his or her thoughts or feeling—saying he is bored with the rings when he is still actively involved in playing with them, or that she wants to read the book when she is already engaged with playing with the ball—denote a lack of mind-mindedness.

In a number of studies in which we’ve followed samples of families over time, we have shown that parents’ mind-mindedness in the first year of life predicts wide-ranging positive aspects of children’s development. Early mind-mindedness is associated with secure parent–child attachment, whereas lower levels of mind-mindedness predict insecure attachment. Mind-mindedness also predicts better language and play abilities at age two, and children’s understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings throughout the pre-school years.

Our studies always try to recruit parents living in very diverse circumstances so we can investigate whether findings generalise to families from different backgrounds. For me, our most fascinating results shed light on how mind-mindedness might mitigate against the negative child outcomes associated with social and economic deprivation. We know that, compared with their more affluent peers, children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have behavioural difficulties. There is also a notable achievement gap in educational attainment between disadvantaged children and those from more affluent backgrounds.

In children from disadvantaged backgrounds, our research shows that early mind-mindedness is associated with lower levels of behavioural difficulties and better performance in school-based SATs when children are seven and 11 years of age. These findings suggest that early intervention to facilitate mind-mindedness in families suffering social and economic deprivation may be a useful way of improving the poor child outcomes associated with poverty.

This research—conducted by our group and many others around the world—highlighting the benefits of mind-mindedness prompted us to investigate whether it is possible to teach parents to become more mind-minded. We have designed two mind-mindedness interventions, both of which have been shown to be effective: an individually-tailored video feedback session developed for mothers hospitalised with their babies due to severe mental illness, and a smartphone app. The effectiveness of the app is particularly exciting because it shows it’s possible to help parents to be more mind-minded simply by using something that’s already part of everyday life.

  • Elizabeth Meins will be speaking on mind-mindedness at Talk To Your Baby 2019: From the national agenda to the front line, taking place in Manchester on 21 January. Visit https://literacytrust.org.uk/ttyb to book your place.
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