What Is Theory of Mind?

Think of it as how well children are tuned into their own thoughts and feelings, and those of the people around them.



"Theory of mind" is a label for awareness of one's own feelings and sensitivity to others' thoughts and feelings, which may differ from one's own. In the broadest sense, it can make the difference between success and failure in almost every life endeavor. Being tuned into other people's feelings may be the most underrated secret of success in business and career advancement as well as in relationships.

How Theory of Mind Develops
Genes, growth, and maturation, and experience all contribute to children's improving theory of mind. Language development is essential to sensing and expressing others' feelings and thoughts. In the last 15 or 20 years, concern about autistic children's difficulties has focused attention on both slow verbal development and limited theory of mind. Experts have noted that pretend play is normally very rich in early childhood, but not among those on the autistic spectrum. Pretend play involves putting oneself into another's place. It involves trying out another's feelings and way of seeing the world. (So here is still another compelling reason to recognize the value of pretend play!)

Experts on theory of mind say that well-developing children follow a typical timeline:

  • By the end of the first year of life, children show early signs of sensing others' feelings.
  • By age 2 or 3, they are very clear about what they want and how they feel about it. Young toddlers have already learned to interpret caregivers' facial expressions and moods, and to respond accordingly. But children this young, even up to kindergarten age, still presume that others see what they see and experience what they experience.
  • By about 4, kids are usually more aware of differences between their own thinking and feelings and those of others. There is a neat little experiment that illustrates this leap in development. Show your child's stuffed animal or doll where to find a favorite snack. Later, with your child, move the snack to another spot. Then ask her where the stuffed animal should go to get it. Most kids younger than 4 point to the original hiding place, but over-4s recognize that the toy character won't find its snack there because it has been moved.
  • By the time they reach middle childhood (ages 6–8), kids can be expected to understand that different people can have different feelings about the same event or situation. Daddy's favorite food may be steak, Mommy's a French pastry, while the child's own is pizza. Giving Mommy a pizza for Mothers' Day probably won't excite her as much as presenting a fruit tart with crème fraiche.

Support Your Child's Social Learning
While the development of a keen sensibility to others depends partly on age, language development, and genetics, there are important environmental influences. Having opportunities for role-playing enables your child to "try on" the feelings of others. Real-life family interactions also offer many such chances. The negotiating between siblings about turn-taking and even power struggles with sibs or parents are instructive in considering how someone else might react to a behavior or request. Family discussions about outside events and "why someone did something" also help to build this skill.

Having a well-functioning theory of mind (or whatever we might label tuning into one's own and others' feelings) bodes well for a growing child. I hasten to add, though, that it doesn't necessarily imply "niceness" or good manners — the consideration of others out of kindness. Rather, it implies keen interpersonal and intrapersonal awareness (what some have called "emotional intelligence") that goes hand-in-hand with success.

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