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How parents help babies develop a Theory of mind

father holding his daughter as if she was flying

Key points:

  1. Theory of Mind is understanding others’ mental states (emotions, intent, beliefs).
  2. It’s a fundamental cognitive ability developed through social interactions.
  3. Early milestones include understanding attention and intention in others.
  4. Parents play a crucial role in stimulating and enhancing this cognitive skill.

When we attribute mental states (like emotions, intent, beliefs, etc.) to ourselves or to others, and understand that others have emotions, intent, and beliefs that may differ from our own, we are using what psychologists call “Theory of Mind”.

Building on Piaget´s theory of cognitive development, psychologists agree that theory of mind appears to be an innate potential ability in humans that requires many years of social, emotional, and cognitive stimulation for it to reach its full development.

According to Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen from Cambridge University, one can observe many hallmarks of an incipient theory of mind during early childhood. Understanding attention in others, understanding the idea of intention, and imitative experience with caregivers like parents, family members, and teachers, are all great milestones that young children achieve during their early years of life.


While all this may sound complicated, and the research involves state of the art in neuroscience, the reality is that helping your child develop theory of mind is an ongoing, partially intuitive aspect of parenting, and one that can be both fun and easy. For example, you stimulate this skill when you share your child’s focus of attention when they point towards something for you to see, when you help your little one put a feeling into words, when you explain that a moment of distress or frustration will pass and you help distract them, etc. All these are helping your child build and strengthen the prefrontal cortex.

As documented in the 2015 International Journal of Behavioral Development, this early construction of brain architecture sets the stage for young children to keep on developing theory of mind skills sequentially, and to develop cognitive and social competences that will continue to have a snowball effect until adulthood.

As an example, toddlers need to first recognize that others have diverse desires and interests in order to, later in childhood, grasp the notion that others have different beliefs. After, in early teens, they are expected to begin understanding that others have access to different knowledge bases, and to move forward in their social proficiency and understand that both them and others may have false beliefs or hide emotions and opinions.

When you engage in play and joint activities with your little one, like through the Kinedu Daily Activity Plans, you are actively helping your little one develop their theory of mind!

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