April 7, 2016 10:58 am Considering the Perspective of Others
Katherine Kinzler’s article, The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals (NYT 3/11/16), cites recent research by herself and others that indicates that young children growing up in a household in which they are exposed to more than one language develop a greater capacity for a skill that is crucial to interpersonal understanding. Because they must keep in mind who speaks what language to whom, they have constant practice in putting themselves in the place of others. It is not necessary that children learn to speak more than one language, the research reveals. What is necessary is that children practice taking into account the perspective of others. A difference in this ability shows up as early as 14 -16 months.
This ability to see through the eyes of the other is the cognitive basis for empathy and compassion. It is the cognitive skill necessary in solving conflicts and functioning cooperatively with others. It is the cognitive skill necessary to grow beyond egocentrism (seeing only one’s own point of view) to social functioning. This ability was identified and studied extensively nearly a century ago by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who described it as a developmental emergent. It is not, in other words, an ability that can be taught or learned but one that is part of an innate developmental sequence that emerges in stages. This does not mean that experience is irrelevant but that the experiences that contribute to this ability “coming on line” are the broad range of social communication experiences involved in normal growing up. The importance of giving children plenty of these “normal” experiences is the philosophical basis of play – based preschool programs.
What is striking about Kinzler’s research is that this ability is beginning to emerge as early as 14 -16 months (much earlier than Piaget described) and that there are some specific types of experiences that we can identify that facilitate its emergence. Kinzler’s studies focus on the contribution of multilingual exposure in fostering this ability. Before families with no such advantage despair for their children, however, a look at what it is about multilingual exposure that facilitates this cognitive ability will show that there are many other experiences that create the same cognitive challenge. The essence of the challenge of multilingualism is the need to put oneself in the place of the other in order to communicate effectively. A far more common example of a similar challenge occurs for every child who has a younger sibling. Understanding that one’s younger brother isn’t old enough to “know better” when he destroys your Lego creation calls upon the same cognitive ability. Learning to talk to a younger sibling in age appropriate language is itself multilingualism.
But what about only children and youngests? Here is a good argument for having pets as part of the family even when children are very young. As long as parents are as vigilant in protecting the welfare of Bowser as they would be protecting the welfare of a younger sibling, having a pet in the family gives a child the opportunity to learn to put himself in the place of the pet and see the world from another’s point of view.
No sibs, no pets? Parents can consciously facilitate the child’s putting herself in the place of another by sharing their own humanity. “I felt so good when you saw how tired I was and played by yourself while I fixed dinner.” Parents can also consciously model looking through the eyes of another. “I wonder if Suzie is lonely because her parents are away. Shall we see if she wants to come over and play?” Talking together about the different perspectives of characters in storybooks offers another opportunity.
Kinzler’s research focuses us on a cognitive capacity that is essential to interpersonal understanding, intimacy, conflict resolution (and for that matter, world peace), the ability to see through the eyes of the other. She has made us aware that it begins even in infancy. Multilingualism is, however, only one of a million ways it can be fostered.
Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.