The gift of telling a story

Study finds mothers tell stories about past experiences in a more emotional context to their children; it helps kids in their emotional development

Mother with a kidThe primary aim of a new study published in the Springer journal Sex Roles was to contrast the reminiscing styles of mothers and fathers with their pre-school daughters and sons. The research team from University of Central Florida and Emory University studied how the parents elaborated on the story and the degree to which their children engaged with the story while it was being told.

Widaad Zaman from University of Central Florida and Robyn Fivush from Emory University conducted the research on 42 families having kids who were 4 –to 5 years old. Parents were requested to reminisce about four past emotional experiences of the child [happy, sad, a conflict with a peer and a conflict with a parent] and two past play interactions they experienced together. Once the mother would narrate the experiences, and in a separate instance, the father would narrate the experiences.

The researchers found that the gender of the parent was key: mothers elaborated more when reminiscing with their children than fathers. Contrary to previous research, however, Zaman’s study found that the gender of the child was not so significant; mothers narrated emotional tales to sons as well as daughters. Mothers focussed on more emotional terms in the story than fathers, and used them to discuss and explain the past event to the child in greater detail. This helped the child understand the subjective nature of experiences and how a unique personal perspective is important.

Also, it did not matter to mothers if they were relating a sad event or a happy event, every event they narrated was laced with emotions. Probably mothers try to help kids deal with difficult emotions by talking about them, thus enhancing the emotional wellbeing of the child.

The authors believe that their study is a necessary first step to better understanding how parents socialise gender roles to girls and boys through narratives about the past. Also how their styles affect the emotional wellbeing of the children who hear the stories.

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