Variety in Parental Use of “Want” Relates to Subsequent Growth in Children’s Theory of Mind

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Abstract

In 2 cross-lagged, longitudinal studies we contrasted parental talk about want in a single context versus multiple contexts. Study 1 examined thirty-two 2 year olds, with mothers describing pictures to children. Mothers could use want in zero, one, or multiple contexts. Children whose mothers used want in multiple contexts experienced a significantly larger gain in mental state terms over a 6-month period. Study 2 examined 50 preschoolers, measuring theory of mind (ToM) with tasks and mental state terms, then had parents intervene by reading booklets in which want was used in 1 or multiple contexts. Over a 6-week period, the latter group made larger gains in ToM. We posit that maternal use of want in multiple contexts assists understanding that want refers to an underlying mental state rather than a single behavior.

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