As adults, we understand that others have their own thoughts, beliefs, and desires; that is, they have their own way of thinking. But we’ve not always been aware of this. To be able to make accurate deductions about others’ intentions and beliefs, children need to develop a theory of mind.
To illustrate this with an example let’s tell a brief story. “A little child places all their toy blocks in one container and then leaves the room. Meanwhile, someone comes in and rearranges the room, changing the blocks to a different box. Later, the little child returns and wants to build a block tower. Where would they look for the blocks?”. As different studies have shown, younger kids will probably answer that they child would open the box where the blocks actually are, and it’s not until about 4 or 5 years of age that children understand that what the little child believes is not necessarily what is real, thus they will be able to answer that they would look in the original container where they placed the blocks.
Having a theory of mind has a huge impact on children, as it transforms the way they are able to see others and make sense of their actions. Basically, the theory of mind serves children in two major developmental areas: social and cognitive.
The theory of mind is an important social tool that allows children to create their own explanations for others’ behavior and predict it. Both cooperation and competition require an understanding about others’ mental states, as it is essential to know others’ beliefs, desires, and intentions to be successful in any of these tasks. While competing, we need to know when the other person’s intents come into conflict with our own in order to overcome them. On the other hand, behaving in an altruistic manner requires a knowledge about what others need and crave, as well as comprehension about what others think about us (for example, knowing that others will think poorly of us if we are selfish, and vice versa). Plus, understanding someone else’s intentions also helps children distinguish between accidental behaviors and purposely malicious ones.
The theory of mind allows children to acquire certain forms of reasoning, taking big steps in their cognitive development. One of the biggest one is the ability to use meta-representation. What does this mean? Simply stated, it means thinking about another person’s thoughts, and judge if their representation actually relates to the real world, for example, thinking that the other person’s belief is false. As simple as it may seem, having a theory of mind like this involves the understanding of very complex concepts. It means that we recognize that there is a single reality, but that not everyone has the same representations of it. So, it fosters the comprehension of concepts like subjective and objective, facts and values. For example, grasping the idea that a fact is non-negotiable while an opinion is subjective, open to discussion, and can vary between people.
Frye, D. & Moore, C. (2014). Children’s Theories of Mind: Mental States and Social Understanding. Psychology Press.