How you talk to your baby now can impact social skills later

<i></i>
 Photo: Getty Images

Think you have your hands full making sure your baby is fed and clean and gets enough sleep? Here's another thing for the list: developing your child's social skills by the way you talk.

People used to think that social skills were something kids were born with, not taught. But a growing body of research shows that the environment a child grows up in as an infant and toddler can have a major impact on how they interact with others as they get older.

And it turns out that a key factor may be the type of language they hear around them, even at an age when all they can do is babble.

Psychologists at the University of York observed 40 mothers and their babies at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months and logged the kind of language mothers used during play. They were especially interested in "mind-related comments", which include inferences about what someone is thinking when a behaviour or action happens.

Elizabeth Kirk, a lecturer at the university who is the lead author of the study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology on Monday, gave this as an example: If an infant has difficulty opening a door on a toy, the parent might comment that the child appears "frustrated".

Then researchers revisited the children when they were 5 or 6 years of age and assessed their socio-cognitive ability. The test involved reading a story and having the children answer comprehension questions that show whether they understood the social concept - persuasion, joke, misunderstanding, white lies, lies, and so forth - that was represented.

It turns out that the more a parent made mind-related comments while the child was an infant or toddler, the higher the child's test scores were at age 5 or 6.

"These findings show how a mother's ability to tune in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathise with the mental lives of other people," Kirk said in a statement.

"This has important consequences for the child's social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling."

Washington Post