“Mind reading” is one of the most important skills our children can learn. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about crystal ball stuff or telepathy. I mean developing what psychologists call a “theory of mind”—the ability to understand and take the perspective of another person’s feelings and intentions. This “theory of mind” or “mind reading” skill, is not related to intelligence and, even better, can be improved with practice.
What makes “mind reading” so important? For one thing, a recent study showed that “mind reading” skills improve a person’s ability to cooperate with others. It made it easier for them to understand the other person and get in sync with them. It also helped them to recover more quickly when they got out of sync with the other person. “Mind reading” (have a strong theory of mind) also helps a person have greater empathy and greater understanding of the other person’s beliefs and motives.
You can imagine how this “mind reading” skill can benefit relationships with friends, a future spouse, and family. The question becomes: how can we help our children develop beneficial mind reading skills? Good question. Here’s four actions that can get us started.
- Develop a strong, positive attachment with your child. A strong relationship begins with being aware of your children. Recognize when they are hungry. Remain aware of their emotions. Learn and practice an awareness of their perspective of the world. The next step is to go beyond simple awareness and respond to your child based on that awareness. If you recognize they are hungry, ask if they want a snack. If you see they are tired, encourage them to rest. If they look angry, ask and talk about their feelings. As you practice your theory of mind in this way, your child will learn from your example.
- Engage in pretend play with your child. Pretend play allows your child to “try on” various perspectives, learning to “think” and “feel” like a fireman, a princess, a mom, a teacher. They practice a wide range of emotions by being angry like a parent, firm like a teacher, scared like a puppy, majestic like a princess, heroic like a superhero, or any number of other imaginary scenarios. They also practice various ways of expressing emotions. Moreover, they can pretend to argue and disagree, learning to “see” the other person’s emotions and thoughts and respond appropriately. All in all, in pretend play our children try on different ways of interacting with the world and so develop a greater ability to “mind read.”
- Read books and tell stories. Once again, delving into a book and becoming immersed in the characters allows our children to experience another person’s world and so “read their mind” to know their thoughts and emotions. Talk about the characters in the stories. Discuss how they feel, how they express their feelings, how thoughts and situations contribute to those feelings, and how their actions reflect their feelings. You can also discuss whether other responses may have better expressed the feelings to others. This can help them learn to “mind read” and manage their own emotions as well.
- Talk about emotions, thoughts, and behaviors with your children. Make emotions an open topic for discussion. Learn about the possible thoughts and situations behind various emotions as well as the actions, both positive and negative, that can flow from those thoughts and emotions. Help your children see beyond the surface to the underlying motives and intentions, the hurt and sorrow, joy and celebration behind people’s statements and actions. Talk about your own emotions as well as your children’s emotions and the emotions of characters in movies, their friends, and other people in their lives. Doing so opens their lives to accept the perspectives and emotions of others. It builds their ability to cooperate and have empathy.
These four actions can help increase your child’s ability to “mind read” (and your ability as well). Even better, this will result in an increased ability to show empathy and cooperate as well. Don’t we need a little more empathy and cooperation in our world? Let it begin in our homes.