Young children whose mothers talk with them more frequently and in more detail about people's thoughts and feelings tend to be better at taking another person's perspective than other children of the same age.
That's what researchers from The University of Western Australia found in a new longitudinal study published in the journal "Child Development".
"Parents who frequently put themselves in someone else's shoes in conversations with their children make it more likely their children will be able to do the same," said lead author Brad Farrant, postdoctoral fellow at the UWA-affiliated Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.
Researchers looked at the influence of how parents interact with their children to learn more about how people develop the ability to take another's perspective.
The two-year study involved more than 120 Australian children aged between four and six, including youngsters with typically developing language and others delayed in language acquisition. The participants were part of a larger ongoing longitudinal research project.
The children completed tasks designed to assess their language skills, ability to infer others' beliefs and use these to predict others' behaviour, and their ability to shift flexibly between different perspectives. Mothers also reported on the types of language they used with their children.
Among children with typically developing language, the researchers found that mothers who talked more often and in greater detail about people's thoughts and feelings-commenting on how another person might react to a particular situation as well as their own feelings about the topic - had children with better language skills and better perspective-taking skills.
This suggests that mothers' use of this type of language influences their children's language ability and cognitive flexibility, which in turn appears to influence their development of theory of mind, a key component in learning to take another's perspective.
Children with delayed language acquisition were delayed in their development of perspective-taking skills-though this wasn't necessarily due to their mother's use of language. This highlights the role played by language as children develop the ability to take another's perspective.
"Solving the many challenges that the world faces today requires us all to get better at taking the perspective of other people," Mr Farrant said.
The study was supported by a Hackett scholarship and a completion scholarship from The University of Western Australia.
Tammy Gibbs (Telethon Institute for Child Health Research) (+61 08) 9489 7963 / (+61 4) 08 946 698
Elizabeth Chester (Telethon Institute for Child Health Research) (+61 08) 9489 7777 / (+61 4) 09 988 530
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783