Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Perspective-Taking and the Power of Language

As parents, I think one of the goals most of us have is to help our children develop an understanding and empathy for other people. If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that instilling this idea of empathy seems an almost impossible task. There's a good reason for that--it is almost impossible for a toddler. Most of us know that toddlers (under about 4 years of age) simply don't have the cognitive or social skills to understand what other people might be feeling or thinking.

This task is what psychologists call Theory of Mind--that is the ability to understand or anticipate what another person is feeling or thinking. In other words, it's the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. This skill is the basis for empathy, but also is crucial in children learning social skills like sharing and helping others. So how do children learning this important skill of taking another person's perspective? Researchers have long believed that this ability develops in most around 4 years of age. This video gives a great example of the difference between a 3 and 4 year old in perspective-taking ability:

After viewing this video, it's almost as if something magical happens between age 3 and 4 that helps kids learn this skill. In a sense, this is true. Children's brains are constantly changing and making new circuits that make new thought processes possible. However, new research is showing that us that how parents talk to their children may also aid in this perspective-taking ability.

A recent study published in the journal Child Development showed that children whose mothers described more about how other people might be feeling or thinking had better perspective-taking skills than those whose mothers did not use this descriptive language. In some respects, this study seems kind of obvious. You would expect that talking to a child about taking another person's perspective would help them learn this ability. When you really consider this, though, it is pretty amazing. The cognitive skill it takes for a youngster to understand the perspective of another person is pretty complex and to think that just a parent talking to them about this influences how quickly they learn this skill.

The other compelling aspect of the study is the finding that children who had delays in language acquisition also had delays in perspective-taking ability. This provides further evidence that the link between language and perspective-taking ability is a real one. The researchers believe that specific aspects of language acquisition (e.g., learning possessive words) helps children gain the cognitive flexibility needed to take another person's perspective.

Although this study is interesting, it is worth noting that a child does still have to have a certain degree of cognitive development in order to learn perspective-taking. No matter how much you talk to your 2 year old about how another person is feeling, they most likely are not going to really understand the other person's perspective. This use of description language, however, will hopefully help your child later when they have the cognitive maturity to grasp the idea of taking another person's perspective.


Farrant BM, Maybery MT, & Fletcher J (2012). Language, cognitive flexibility, and explicit false belief understanding: longitudinal analysis in typical development and specific language impairment. Child development, 83 (1), 223-35 PMID: 22188484
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