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Mother–Child Conversations About Pictures and Objects: Referring to Categories and Individuals


  • This research was supported by NICHD grant HD-36043 to Gelman and NICHD grant HD-28730 to Waxman. Study 1 was conducted as an honor's thesis by Chesnick at the University of Michigan. We are very grateful to the parents and children who participated in the studies. We also thank Felicia Kleinberg, Brook McCloud, Bethany Gorka, Julie Carpenter, and Rob Palazzo for transcribing and coding the videotapes, and Sarah Glauser for creating the drawings that were used in the studies. We also appreciate Tracy Lavin's comments on an earlier draft.

concerning this article should be addressed to Susan Gelman, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. Electronic mail may be sent to


The distinction between individuals (e.g., Rin-Tin-Tin) and categories (e.g., dogs) is fundamental in human thought. Two studies examined factors that influence when 2- to 3-year-old children and adults focus on individuals versus categories. Mother–child dyads were presented with pictures and toys (e.g., a picture of a boat or a toy boat). Conversations were coded for references to generic categories (“Dogs are furry”), ostensive labels (“This is a dog”), or specific individuals (“Lassie”). Overall, pictures generated more talk about categories; objects generated more talk about individuals. However, when objects could not be manipulated, speakers expressed relatively more category references. These results suggest that representations (in the form of pictures or objects-on-display) encourage young children and parents alike to think about categories.