Engaging and talking with your child from birth can reap huge benefits for their social understanding and development, saysDr Nicola Yuill

Abstract alltalkEarly and relevant conversations can aid childhood development. Numerous innovative studies have highlighted the importance of early interaction, including the SUMS project and Mental State Talk (MST), which can aid the child's development of social understanding and nonliteral aspects of communication, such as joking and sarcasm. Journal of Family Health Care 2011 21(5)

Key points  

  • Mental state talk (MST) describes conversation about your own and others' thoughts, feelings, wishes and imaginings
  • Children aged three whose parents use more MST have higher levels of such talk themselves - and fewer reported behaviour problems, up to eight years later
  • High levels of social understanding do not necessarily mean "nice" behaviour: children learn a lot through conflict, as well as emotions like jealousy and sadness
  • Talking to your child about people's thoughts and feelings helps reinforce the importance of social understanding, for both mother and child
  • The link between mothers' talk and children's understanding occurs regardless of the mothers' general language ability or education level
  • This suggests that MST is easy to do and can have beneficial effects later

Childhood Development

In our busy, everyday lives, we may typically walk past a mother - or father - parking the baby buggy facing a blank wall while they chat to a friend on their mobile... Maybe the phone screen even has a photo of their child, but somehow the child is not included in the conversation. Conversely we may pass other parents engaging in lively debates with their toddlers about what is happening in the world around them. Although the casual observer may view both instances as "normal" behaviour, continued research is proving that the quality of these types of early communication between parent and child can have far reaching effects on the child's behaviour.

Baby talk  

Some clever research, by Suzanne Zeedyk at the University of Dundee, proves the point1. Her research in 2008 concluded that backward-facing buggies encourage parents to chat to their children, whereas this is much more difficult in the forward-facing type of buggy, where there is no mutual eye contact or sharing of non-verbal signals.

SUMS project  

There are, however, many more opportunities for conversations with toddlers and young children, and our research shows that these conversations can have far-reaching benefits.
The SUMS project (Social Understanding and Mental State talk) was set up by Ted Ruffman and Lance Slade at the University of Sussex in 2000 to explore and track this idea2.
The SUMS project involved 83 families with children aged around three. The families were visited intensively over the first year, and then more occasionally over the next eight years, until the children had finished primary school. On each visit, the mother and the child performed a series of tasks, both separately and together (or sometimes with a third party such as a school friend), so that we could look at their language, social understanding and social behaviour in games involving cooperating and competing. At each visit, mothers and children did a picture task described below, so we used the same measure over a long period of time (the pictures were adapted over time to suit the age of the children). We then categorised the sorts of talk used (see Box 2).

Box 1: An example of Parent (P) and Child (C) mental state talkP: They're very happy aren't they? Do you think they're at school?
C: They're adults.
P: I think they're little boys, do you not think?
C: Yeah yeah.
P: Do you think that may be a school uniform? The robe.
C: Maybe it's school and it's the summer holidays.
P: They have all had their hair shaved. An outbreak of nits in their class.
C: Pardon?
P: They've had an outbreak of nits. Are they girls?
C: No, maybe it's a boy's thing or maybe they've just said there are no girls so they're happy.
P: He doesn't look so much happy as frightened.
C: I think he's falling.
P: How weird is he? I think they're all quite excited though.
C: About nothing.
P: The ice-cream van

 Mental State Talk (MST) Picture Task   alltalk1

During the simple task we asked mothers and their threeyear- olds to look through a series of pictures of varied social situations, as if they were sharing a picture book or photo album. We analysed the sorts of language the mothers used during the task. Because we visited the same families over eight years, we found that how the mother talked to the child at the age of three was still influencing her child's talk and social understanding at the age of 11. Particularly important is what we called mental state talk (MST), ie: talking about your own and others' feelings, thoughts and wishes (see Box 1). These sorts of effects are difficult to find in research like ours, based on short, occasional home visits over such a long period, but can be powerful in helping us to support mothers for whom such talk comes less naturally. More speculatively, it may also be the case that helping mothers to talk about thoughts and feelings helps them to think about their child as a developing person.

Early findings  

There is notable stability in mothers' conversational style over time: mothers who use lots of MST early on also use it later, though the detail and complexity of the language obviously changes over time. However, how the mother talks with the child at age three still allows us to predict the child's social understanding at the age of 11. There are some rapid and striking changes in the first four years in social understanding, and socalled "theory of mind". The young child has a rapidly developing capacity for joint attention, making their needs understood (eg: with signs, expressions and then language), and understanding differences in others' beliefs and wishes.

The importance of social understanding  

As the child grows older there is a more gradual development in understanding the pragmatic, nonliteral aspects of communication, such as politeness, white lies, sarcasm, joking, and grasping (and hopefully avoiding!) the social faux pas we all cringe at in programmes like The Office. We found that by about the age of 12, the children we studied were as skilled as adults in understanding and explaining such complexities of social interaction, but that their skills in this social understanding still related back to their early conversations about mental states. We know that many children start formal schooling with very few conversational and social skills, which makes it even more important to communicate to parents just how crucial it is to listen to and talk with pre-schoolers. It is not just "words" they are learning, but so much more about themselves and others, and about their place in the world. 

Listening is key  

The roots of this conversation at the age of three lie in the way that parents tailor their conversation at a very detailed level. Taumoepeau and Ruffman3 showed that mothers used vocabulary just beyond the level of their child's current capabilities when using mental state talk with children aged 15 to 33 months, with desires and emotions first, and thoughts and knowledge later, and moving from the child's own mental states to those of other people (see Box 2). This sort of stretching seems entirely natural: mothers were generally not aware of how closely they were prefiguring their children's language development. This is also a key issue for practice: we have sometimes found that keen mothers will try hard to talk to their baby "in the right way" and to correct them - but listening, and relating what you say to what the child says or shows is a more natural and effective way to communicate. This is in line with the idea of "scaffolding" inspired by the psychologist Vygotsky's work4: you provide support at the early stages but gradually remove it as the learner becomes more independent.

Box 2: Sample categorisation of Mental State Talk (MST)Thinking and Knowing eg: think, believe, know
Wanting eg: want, like, love, hope, wish
Emotions eg: afraid, sad, disappointed, worried, surprised, excited
Other mental states eg: remember, understand, forget, dream, imagine
Modulations of assertion eg: maybe, perhaps, must, definitely, sure, guess 

Implications for behaviour  

Does good social understanding mean "nice behaviour"? No, not necessarily. We found that children exposed to plenty of MST tended to show more conflict with the mother at various points: this is not necessarily a bad thing, though. We know from the pioneering work by Judy Dunn5 that children have to work hard to outwit their siblings and to cope with jealousies and rivalries of family life, and this conflict seems to sharpen skills in theory of mind - working out what other people are thinking and feeling (and knowing just exactly how to annoy them most!). Conflicts can also generate lots of useful discussion about others' feelings, wishes, etc., and foster the idea that these states are different, that they are important, and that different needs and desires can be accommodated in family life. MST does however seem associated with lower levels of later behaviour problems. We have recently found evidence that mothers who used less MST when their children were three or four reported higher levels of difficult behaviour in their children at eight or nine. There could be many different reasons for this and we are working on the idea that parenting style makes the difference here: we suggest that low levels of MST coupled with authoritarian parenting (in these English parents at least) produces children less at ease with themselves and their peers later in childhood. Mothers' use of MST was not such a strong predictor of children's social understanding at 11 than it was earlier on. Of course, we recognise that peers become much more influential as children develop their independent lives at school. It is also possible that genetic factors have a role to play.

Moving forward  

Making firm conclusions about development over time is tricky, and we need plenty of families involved to be able to be confident in our conclusions. Given the many complex influences on children's lives, and the many characteristics children bring to bear on their environment, it is usually hard to untangle causal connections. That is why we use a combination of longitudinal studies (studying the same children over time, to see whether early factors still predict later development), and training studies. We have just started a small training study, where we try to influence mothers' talk to their children by modelling it for them in individual computer presentations, so that we can produce guides to MST, just as Kate Ripley and Elspeth Simpson did for emotion language6. If the children's social understanding changes in line with our expectations when their mothers have been involved in MST training, rather than in other sorts of training, or no training at all, we would have further firm evidence showing how early talk influences later understanding.

Key questions  

There are still plenty of unanswered questions: how closely is MST related to the more emotional aspects of behaviour; the intuitive, empathic reactions we feel for others? What about early conversations with fathers and with peers? And how important is self-regulation of behaviour: the ability to control strong emotions and inhibit behaviour, to act reflectively rather than impulsively? Increasingly, research is focusing on the way that mothers support the regulation of attention and emotion in their toddlers. In most studies in the West, authoritative parenting - setting appropriate rules and explaining their use - seems to be the best way to achieve this. However, a recent study suggests that cultural differences are also important here: while Western mothers generally seem to support their children best in learning a task with authoritative techniques, a recent study by Stright and her colleagues in 2009 showed that mothers of Tibetan heritage achieved good adjustment at school for their children with more directive techniques7. Teachers may need to be sensitive to the differences in children's backgrounds, and the style of support they find most familiar.


The implications for practice are clear: conversational exchange (rather than the one-sided input provided by TV or radio) has a real influence on children's later social understanding, and it is specifically mental state talk that helps this understanding. Encouraging such talk should not be that difficult, since it does not require complex vocabulary. Children might want to argue and disagree: negotiating with them through reasoned argument and discussion is helping not just to sort out an immediate problem, but also helps shape children's social abilities through childhood. Our current work in the ChaTLab (part of the Developmental and Clinical Psychology Research Group at the University of Sussex) modelling such talk on computer for parents will show whether such scaffolding will put children onto the path of better social understanding.

Further information

Our research was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council: http://www.esrc.ac.uk
For more information on our projects with children and communication visit ChaTLab: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab


1. Zeedyk MS. What's life in a baby buggy like?: The impact of buggy orientation on parent-infant interaction and infant stress. University of Dundee 2008. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/talk_to_your_baby/resources/1555_whats_life_in_a_baby_buggy_like [Accessed August 2011]
2. Ruffman T, Slade L, Crowe E. The relation between children's and mothers' mental state language and theory-of-mind understanding. Child Dev 2002; 73(3): 734-751
3. Taumoepeau M, Ruffman T. Stepping stones to others' minds: maternal talk relates to child mental state language and emotion understanding at 15, 24, and 33 months. Child Dev 2008; 79(2): 284-302
4. Berk L, Winsler, A. Vygotsky: His life and works and Vygotsky's approach to development. In: Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Learning. National Association for Education of Young Children. Washington DC 1995
5. Dunn J, Brown J. Family talk about feeling states and children's later understanding of others' emotions. Dev Psychol 1991; 27(3): 448-453
6. Ripley K, Simpson E. First Steps to Emotional Literacy. David Fulton Books, 2007
7. Stright A, Neitzel C, Herr MY. Maternal scaffolding of children's problem solving and children's adjustment in kindergarten: Among families in the United States. J Educ Psychol 2009; 101(1): 207-218