March 26, 2001
By Rachel Robertson
Many families struggle to keep up with busy schedules but still value time spent talking. According to Robyn Fivush, this time can be an important part of a familys emotional well being.
Fivush, professor of psychology, is interested in how families talk about
past events because of her work in autobiographical memory, but also because
it provides a window into family- and self-concept.
The way in which we talk about our past is very much a part of
how we conceptualize our self in the present, Fivush said. Who
we are is very much influenced by how we remember our past experiences.
So, within that context, it becomes interesting to look at how families
share their past experiences together.
Parents begin talking to their children about the past before kids are
even able to contribute much on their own. Parents will recount stories
with children as young as 18 months of age. With younger children, parents
provide most of the content, but throughout the preschool years children
begin to participate more and more, until they are able to contribute
as much as the parent.
Here is a conversation Fivush observed between a mother and her 19-month-old
son, in which the mother provides nearly all of the content:
Na na [attentive, listening to Mother]
puff ah. Is that what they did? And did we wave bye bye to them on the
train when they went home? They went home to Gore didnt they? And
we go bye bye, say bye bye Uncle Nick, bye bye Dorothy. Did we? And what
did the train say?
do you remember? Was it a big blue train like Thomas?
When families reminisce, they not only recall a sequence of eventsthey
also reinterpret what happened and evaluate how they felt. Fivush looks
at both the structure (the stories coherence and causal connections)
and content of the narratives. Of special interest to her is the emotional
The emotional aspect is particularly interesting because its
the emotions that really define those [past] experiences for ourselves,
she said. Emotions are the way to link ourselves to our experiences
and to other people.
One of her most intriguing findings is gender differences in narratives.
Fivush has found differences in how mothers and fathers reminisce with
their children: Mothers tend to talk in more elaborative ways, encouraging
the childs participation by asking questions that provide bits of
information to help the child remember, and also confirming and expanding
on the childs responses. Mothers also talk more about emotions than
Both parents talk about the past more with daughters than with sons and also talk in more elaborative ways with daughterseliciting more memory contributions from girls and giving them more feedback. Parents also differ in the type of information they talk about with daughters versus sons; they talk more about people and relationships with daughters than with sons. Finally, mothers and fathers include more emotional information, especially sadness, when they are speaking to a daughter.
Girls apparently learn that emotions are an important part of narrative,
and by the end of the preschool years they will talk more about emotions
when recalling past events than boys.
The most striking discovery is that gender differences can be seen as
early as 3 years of age. At that young age, girls provide longer and richer
reports of their own past experiences and talk more about people and relationships
The differences are somewhat surprising to me, Fivush said.
They follow along gender stereotypes but it was interesting to see
them so clearly in these family stories.
Fivush has two studies in progress, one involving communication styles of families in which both parents work, and another examining how families communicate about a medical stress. Families in both studies should have a child age 912 (the latter focuses on children with asthma). Interested families can call 404-712-9508.