chapter  5
Researching children’s conversations Harriet Tenenbaum, Patrick Leman, Ana Aznar and Cheryl To
Pages 18

Developmental psychologists have long been interested in studying children’s conversations as a window into children’s development. Not only can analysis and understanding of children’s conversations reveal what children know, think and believe about the world; conversation is also a central medium through which children develop, and come to learn about the world, themselves and others. Thus, from the perspective of developmental and social psychology, children’s conversations are important to study for several reasons. First, children’s conversations give us insight into children’s thoughts and beliefs. Through language, children express their opinions. Imagine a 2-year-old girl who says, ‘me like cheese, you no like cheese.’ From this brief conversation excerpt, we can infer that this child has preferences and at least an implicit understanding of desire. Moreover, she understands that not everyone has the same preference. Were we, however, to interview her and ask her directly if people have different desires, we might assume that she would not understand the question nor be able to respond intelligently. Indeed, until age 3 years, in standard interviews children answer that two people cannot like different things (Pons, Harris, & de Rosnay, 2004). Rather than directly interviewing children about a topic that they have never considered before, researchers may choose to study children’s conversations in a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic setting. Doing so may give them greater insight into what a child understands because in conversations children may respond and contribute more spontaneously than in an interview where they may feel inhibited by the formal question-and-answer structure.