Or, at least, that’s what the CNN headline should have read. Instead, the title was “Mothers’ talk is key to kids’ social skills, study says.” The article discusses a long-running study that concluded mothers who spend more time talking to their young children about the feelings, mental states, and intentions of others tend to have children who develop more social understanding (and “social skills”) at an earlier age than mothers who are more concrete (i.e. “that makes him feel sad when you do that,” instead of “don’t do that”).
But the secondary conclusions of the study are actually way more interesting, in fact contradicting the basic premise of the article (that is, that the study shows that mothers should focus more on building empathy and social skills at an earlier age). Two key snippets are critically important to how the study’s conclusions should be taken. First:
“This effect becomes weaker from ages 10 to 12, perhaps because as children get older, they spend less time at home, and their peers and teachers influence them more, she said. The 12-year-olds, however, generally did as well as their mothers on social understanding tasks, indicating that children at this age can be as ‘socially sophisticated’ as adults, the authors said.”
In other words, the payoff from the focus on mental states and feelings is effectively limited to before the age of 10. After that, the benefits are minimal. (Also, that 12 year olds can be as sophisticated as adults suggests that our society’s tendency to regard teenagers as “children” is foolish. Instead, they are indeed “young adults” by that point and should be treated as such.) Taken in tandem with the next point, the relative lack of long term benefit takes on more significance. Toward the end of the article, we are told:
“But social understanding does not guarantee good behavior, the authors said. Children who showed the most sophisticated social skills in this study also behaved the most negatively toward their mothers in the team task of steering a model car around a race track. This suggests that social understanding isn’t everything and must be used in beneficial ways.”
In other words, the mothers who focus more on empathy and feelings tend to have more unruly and undisciplined kids. Given that the benefits for focusing on mental states peters out at around 10 but a lack of discipline and abundance of disrespect for authority will likely stick around for a lifetime, this study really seems to show that the best thing to do is to keep things concrete for a younger child. They’ll eventually catch up in terms of social skills through the course of natural development, but they’ll likely be more disciplined and respectful if the early focus is concrete rather than on empathy/internal factors.
From a strictly theoretical perspective, this seems to make sense. There is little a young child needs more than consistent limits and an understanding that 1) all behavior has consequences and 2) authority should be respected (and the child is not the authority). The attempt to help a child understand “feelings” and “empathy” as the reasons for moral or behavioral decisions seems inevitably bound to fail, since it makes the child the de facto authority on these decisions.
Rather than choosing based on whether something is “right” or “wrong,” the child learns to operate on a more subjective basis, which (given human nature) will necessarily lead to selfish behavior. We come out of the womb pretty good at rationalizing what we want, and if we are taught a morality based on feelings and our own subjective impressions of things rather than upon notions of higher authority and consequences, increasingly selfish behavior will certainly be the result. The results of this study appear to confirm this, but perversely, the prescription is exactly the opposite of what it should be.