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From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development
of the answer (Saarni et al., 1998). In practice, a child's emotional repertoire is socially constructed.
As parents and other caregivers respond to an infant's emotional expressions, manage the child's feelings, and later label and discuss emotional experience, they help to organize and give meaning to early emotional experience. For example, parents who discuss emotions more frequently and elaborate on emotional experiences (e.g., Why do you think Sally is sad? Do you think she misses her sister? What do you think you could do to cheer her up?) tend to have children with more accurate and elaborated understandings of emotion (Brown and Dunn, 1996; Brown et al., 1996; Denham, 1998; Denham et al., 1994; Dunn, 1994; Dunn et al., 1991; Nelson, 1993, 1996). Research on children with developmental disabilities indicates that such conversations are crucially important. However, looking specifically at children with Down syndrome, their mothers are significantly less likely to refer to inner states (feelings and cognitive states) during everyday conversations compared with mothers of normally developing children, and the children are significantly less likely to talk spontaneously about feelings and more likely to have delayed expressive language skills (Beeghly and Cicchetti, 1997; Tingley et al., 1994). Parents also help their children understand that “how I feel” is not necessarily the same as “how you feel” and thus foster a growing awareness of other people as their own actors—an essential building block of social understanding. Parental behavior can also serve as a catalyst for early empathic responding, especially when parents fix their children's attention on another 's distress and explain the causes of that person's feelings (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992).
Emotion understanding grows in concert with the development of other forms of knowledge and learning in early childhood. Emotions are objects of children's thinking as well as of their feelings. Take, for example, the burgeoning research on “theory of mind,” which focuses on children 's developing frameworks for inferring what other people (or children) are thinking, intending, believing, and feeling and then making predictions about how they will respond (Astington, 1993; Bartsch and Wellman, 1995; Flavell and Miller, 1998). Young children, it turns out, are remarkably perceptive. Even 2-year-olds, for example, understand that people have inner experiences of perceiving, feeling, and desiring and that they will feel good if they get what they want and feel bad if they don't. Four- to 5-year-olds appreciate the more complex connections between emotions and an individual's thoughts, beliefs, and expectations (Bartsch and Wellman, 1995; Flavell and Miller, 1998; Wellman, 1990; Wellman et al., 1995). They understand, for example, that individual tastes and preferences guide how people respond emotionally to rock music or a symphony. Their appreciation of the connection between emotions and expectations appears