Imagine that you’re looking for a place to hide some cookies so they don’t get eaten by someone else. You sneak into the kitchen when no one is around, take your precious cookies out of their box in the pantry, and hide them in the back of the freezer.
When the cookie-culprit comes looking to steal those cookies, where will they look for them? In the pantry or in the freezer?
If you’re like most adults, you’d say they’d probably look in the pantry. But did you know that most kids under the age of 5 get this task wrong and guess the freezer? That’s because young children haven’t yet developed a theory of mind. Although this task seems simple, it actually requires a lot of mental flexibility. For example, it requires remembering what the cookie-culprit knows and how that might be different from what we know.
Theory of mind is an important skill that develops during childhood and as your child develops it, it can become their super power in understanding other people’s emotions and motivations.
What is Theory of Mind?
Theory of mind is a person’s ability to recognize that other people have internal mental worlds that are different from their own. Put simply, having a theory of mind means knowing that other people can think, know, and feel things differently than you.
As adults, it can be difficult to think of a time when we didn’t have theory of mind. We take for granted that it’s an obvious fact of life that others mind’s are separate from our own, but for children it’s not so simple.
Before they develop a theory of mind, it can be challenging for kids to separate their own minds from others. Using the example above, before a child has developed theory of mind, they might have a hard time understanding why the cookie-culprit wouldn’t look in the freezer because they struggle to differentiate what they themselves know from what others know.
When and How Do Children Develop Theory of Mind?
Most children will develop theory of mind around the age of 4 or 5 years, but the building blocks of theory of mind start to form as early as infancy!
One of the early components of theory of mind is joint attention, which is when a parent and child both intentionally direct their attention to the same object or task. This could be something as simple as a parent directing their child’s attention to something, like a parent saying “Look at that big fluffy dog!” and pointing to direct their child’s attention. When a child begins to understand that pointing is a signal to direct their attention somewhere, they’re building important skills to develop theory of mind!
Another key building block to developing theory of mind is having an understanding of intentionality, or knowing that people behave in ways that are motivated by what they want. For example, a child who understands intentionality knows that when someone reaches for a toy, their reach is motivated by their desire to have the toy. This understanding of intentionally goal-directed actions develops around age 2.
After age 2, a child will slowly begin to develop other components of theory of mind, including understanding that people may want and think things that are different than what they themselves want and think. They will also begin to understand that people can have a false-belief, like in our example how the cookie-culprit’s search in the pantry is motivated by a false-belief that the cookies were in there.
The Importance of Theory of Mind
Theory of mind is a crucial skill related to social understanding. Theory of mind allows us to empathize with other people, see things from someone else’s perspective, teach things to people, and connect in new ways.
As a child develops and begins to expand their social networks, theory of mind becomes more and more important. Theory of mind can help lay the foundation for the development of a child’s social skills and their ability to connect to other children.
Theory of mind is also important because of its connection to another crucial developmental skill: executive function. Executive function is an important set of cognitive skills that help us plan and make decisions, like working memory, thinking flexibly, and exerting self-control. While researchers know that there is a link between executive function and theory of mind, it’s not entirely clear which one influences the other. Regardless, developing both of these important skills is a crucial aspect of child development.
How Can Parents Help Develop Theory of Mind?
Theory of mind is a skill that’s hard-wired into your child’s brain and will develop without any kind of parental intervention, but there are still things that parents can do to help theory of mind develop.
Parents can help babies begin to develop theory of mind by practicing joint attention activities with them, for example, acknowledging and responding excitedly when your child points something out to you. Outside of theory of mind, joint attention is an important practice that also helps your baby develop a warm and positive relationship with their caregiver.
Many parents know how important it is to talk to their child, but did you know that it can also help them develop theory of mind? Researchers have found a positive link between a child’s language abilities and their theory of mind skills. This link is also true when it comes to a parent’s language, particularly a parent’s use of mental state language, such as using language like “He thinks that…” or “She feels sad because…” Parents can help theory of mind develop by using this kind of mental state language with their children.
Mindfulness and Theory of Mind
Parents can also help their children develop theory of mind through mindfulness exercises, such as by using mindfulness toys like Pause With Panda. Researchers have found that mindfulness-based exercises can help boost theory of mind skills, most likely by impacting executive function and attention.
Mindfulness exercises can also be a space to practice metacognition, or thinking about thinking. Researchers have known for a long time that metacognition and theory of mind go hand in hand. Mindfulness exercises that allow children to reflect on their own thinking can be a great boost to their theory of mind. Using tools like Pause With Panda to facilitate a child’s mindfulness skills can be a great way to help your child build these important skills.