Maternal Discussions of Mental States and Behaviors: Relations to Emotion Situation Knowledge in European American and Immigrant Chinese Children


  • This research was supported by NIMH Grant R01-MH64661 to Qi Wang. The authors thank members of the Social Cognition Development Lab at Cornell University for their contributions to the project, Francoise Vermeylan for her statistical expertise and advice, and the three anonymous reviewers who provided insightful critiques on earlier drafts of this article. Special thanks go to the children and families who made this study possible.

concerning this article should be addressed to Stacey Doan, Department of Human Development, Cornell University, MVR Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853-4401. Electronic mail may be sent to


This study examined in a cross-cultural context mothers’ discussions of mental states and external behaviors in a story-telling task with their 3-year-old children and the relations of such discussions to children’s emotion situation knowledge (ESK). The participants were 71 European American and 60 Chinese immigrant mother–child pairs in the United States. Mothers and children read a storybook together at home, and children’s ESK was assessed. Results showed that European American mothers made more references to thoughts and emotions during storytelling than did Chinese mothers, who commented more frequently on behaviors. Regardless of culture, mothers’ use of mental states language predicted children’s ESK, whereas their references to behaviors were negatively related to children’s ESK. Finally, mothers’ emphasis on mental states over behaviors partially mediated cultural effects on children’s ESK.