Ms. Cleo Tay
Parental Mental State Talk in Two Contexts: Parents’ Cognitive Sentential Complements are Positively Associated with Children’s Theory of Mind
9 November 2021 (Tuesday), 4pm
Theory of mind (ToM), the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to others, is crucial for navigating the social world. Social constructivists argue that discourse involving cognitive terms (e.g., “think”) in parental mental state talk (MST) facilitates children’s ToM development, while cognitivist accounts suggest that the acquisition of sentential complement clause (SCC) syntax is necessary for false belief understanding (FBU), an indicator of ToM. This is because SCCs allow one to describe an agent’s attitude (e.g., “Sally thinks…”) toward statements that may be false (e.g., “…the marble is in the basket.”). Given that cognitive terms often co-occur with SCCs, the present study aimed to disentangle the roles of cognitive terms (semantics) and SCCs (syntax) in parental language on 3- to 5-year-olds’ ToM. We coded for parents’ cognitive SCCs (semantics and syntax), non-cognitive SCCs (only SCC syntax), and cognitive terms without SCCs (only cognitive semantics) in two contexts: puzzle teaching (Study 1; n = 89) and wordless storybook reading (Study 2; n = 84). Multilevel logistic regressions showed that parents’ cognitive SCCs were positively related to children’s FBU, while neither non-cognitive SCCs nor cognitive non-SCCs had significant associations. This suggests that cognitive semantics and SCC syntax found in parental MST play a joint role in children’s ToM; however, neither is sufficient per se. The present study is the first to examine the link between children’s ToM and parental SCCs in a naturalistic context. It bridges two previously separate areas of research: cognitivist accounts of children’s SCC understanding and social constructivist accounts of parental MST.
Cleo is currently a full-time Teaching Assistant at the Department of Psychology. She was previously a lab manager and Master’s student at the NUS Child Development Lab. Her primary research interest is theory of mind or how children learn to represent and attribute mental states such as beliefs, desires, and intentions to themselves and to others.