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How Do We Help Children Take Other Perspectives? A Conversation with Ellen Galinsky

Ellen Galinsky on Helping Children Take Other Perspectives?

I had the good fortune to talk to Ellen Galinsky, the author of Mind in the Making, about her important insights about perspective-taking. Below is our conversation:

1. Why do you think perspective taking is an essential skill?

We worry about school readiness in the U.S. because we know that far too many children aren't ready for school. We tend to think that the solution is to increase what young children know - numbers, letters, concepts, and content. But now think about those children who go to school and can't understand what their teachers want or expect. Studies (by Janet Astington of the University of Toronto and others) show that these children's aren't ready for school either.

We worry about children who bully or cyber-bully other children. We tend to think that the solution is outlawing bullying and teaching children to use other techniques, such as problem solving, to resolve conflicts. But now think about those children who get into fights because they aren't able to read the behavior of others; they misinterpret what's going on, for example, assuming that they are being dissed when that may not be the case at all. Research (by Larry Aber of New York University and others) shows that unless these children learn how to understand others' behavior, efforts at teaching them to curb violence won't make much of a difference.

The children I have been talking about need to improve their skill in perspective taking. They need to become more adept at understanding and interpreting the thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes of other people. Since perspective taking involves making sense of the minds of others, its scientific study is called "theory of mind" research. Rebecca Saxe of MIT calls perspective taking a social-cognition skill because when children think about the perspectives of others, both social and cognitive parts of their brains are involved. And their emotions are involved as well.

This skill is not just essential for children; it's essential for adults too. The man considered one of the greatest thinkers about modern management, the late Peter Drucker, has said that an "outside-in perspective" -seeing things as a customer or client would see them- is responsible for the creation of some of the most innovative businesses of the past and present. Think of iPods, Google, and eBay-innovative products and companies that understood a need that hadn't existed beforehand.

Alison Gopnik of the University of California at Berkeley believes that perspective taking is powerful. "It may be that one of the really special things about human beings," she says, "is that we have this capacity to figure out what's going on in other peoples' minds." Daniel Stern of the University of Geneva says that this helps us learn to be with other people and without this, the world would be a very lonely place.

2. What kinds of perspective taking can a parent expect from a child who is 3 years old, 5 years old, 15 years old, 21 years old?

The capacity to understand that others have different likes and dislikes emerges when children are somewhere between 14 and 18 months. The capacity to understand that others have different thoughts emerges sometime after the third year of life, as this experiment by Alison Gopnik on False Beliefs reveals. [To view a video on this topic, click on this link and insert the passcode: mitm1:]

Some scientists speculate that children may have a germinal understanding of others' thoughts before they can express this understanding in words. What they lack is the ability to inhibit what they themselves think and this dominates when they try to use words to express themselves.

Perspective taking is a skill that continues to develop as children grow from childhood into adulthood. For example, Paul Bloom of Yale University and his colleagues find that it is harder for college students to understand others if they have prior knowledge or a belief that new information contradicts-- Bloom calls this the "curse of knowledge."

3. What can parents do to cultivate these forms of perspective taking? What can teachers do?

There are a number of things that parents and teacher can do to promote perspective taking. Among them are:

Talk about others' thinking and feelings. Judy Dunn and her colleagues of King's College London finds that mothers who talk about their newborns as people to their older siblings ("She is crying, do you think she is hungry?") among other things, have siblings who are more likely to be friendly with each other years later.

Express emotion: Ross Thompson of the University of California, Davis, finds that when families talk about emotion in an everyday context, children become more adept at understanding others.

Give children real experiences in understanding others: Alison Gopnik finds that when she and her colleagues explain why others might have different thoughts and feelings than their own as these issues come up in everyday life, the children are more attuned to others' thinking. Giving children a chance to explain their thinking to others also helps.

Include discussions of characters' perspectives in stories children listen to and read: Larry Aber and his colleagues evaluated a curriculum that embedded an understanding of others' perspectives into a literacy curriculum and find that it improves academic achievement and reduces conflict, especially among children most prone to fighting.

4. Is perspective taking enough? After all, con men and torturers can take the perspective of others.

You are so right! Consider the recent arrests of a Russian spy ring in the United States. Their purpose was to understand life as Americans experience it (because- as has been reported in the media- this is complicated for Russians to comprehend) as a prelude to spying. Yes, perspective taking can be a skill than can be used to help others or harm them. And that's why perspective taking and all of the life skills I put forward in my book Mind in the Making cannot be seen as stand-alone skills and why families and teachers need to promote morality (something you have championed so expertly in your books and work, Rick) in all that they do with children.

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