University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Words Speak for Themselves

Children find it difficult to interpret tone of voice

The next time your four-year-old throws her glass of milk on the floor, it may not be her fault, but rather the mixed message you gave her. Sandra Trehub, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, has found that children listen to what is said – not how it is said – to determine a person’s feelings. Children have particular difficulty when the tone of voice and the message content contradict each other, says Trehub. For instance, a child may interpret a flippant or sarcastic remark from a parent, such as “way to go,” as being positive – and then repeat the bad behaviour. Trehub and Bruce Morton, a U of T graduate student, studied the responses of 165 people, ages four to 22, to a variety of recorded messages. They found that the older subjects judged the speaker’s feelings by tone of voice, while children ages four to nine almost always judged by the words spoken. “Children seem to take things at face value and are literalists,” says Trehub. The study was published in the May/June issue of Child Development.

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