Young children's understanding of denial

Keith Austin, Anna Theakston, Elena Lieven, Michael Tomasello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Although a fair amount is known about young children's production of negation, little is known about their comprehension. Here, we focus on arguably the most complex basic form, denial, and how young children understand denial, when it is expressed in response to a question with gesture, single word, or sentence. One hundred twenty-six children in 3 age groups (Ms = 1 year 9 months, 2 years 0 months, and 2 years 4 months) witnessed an adult look into 1 of 2 buckets and then, in response to a question about whether the toy was in there, communicate either something positive (positive head nod, "yes," "it is in this bucket") or negative (negative head shake, "No," "It's not in this bucket"). The youngest children did not search differently in response to any of the communicative cues (nor in response to an additional cue using both gesture and single word). Children at 2 years 0 months searched at abovechance levels only in response to the negative word and negative sentence. Children at 2 years 4 months were successful with all 3 types of cues in both positive and negative modalities, with the exception of the positive sentence. Young children thus seem to understand the denial of a statement before they understand its affirmation, and they understand linguistic means of expressing denial before they understand gestural means. © 2014 American Psychological Association.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2061-2070
    Number of pages9
    JournalDevelopmental psychology
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • Denial
    • Gesture
    • Language development
    • Negation understanding


    Dive into the research topics of 'Young children's understanding of denial'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this