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March 26, 2001

Fivush focuses on family
communication techniques

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 family’s 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:

Do you remember when Austin came to stay, and Dorothy and Uncle Nick? And where did we go? Did we go to the train station, Hamish? Did we go to the station and see the trains, the puffer trains?

Child: Na na [attentive, listening to Mother]

Mother: Puff 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 didn’t they? And we go bye bye, say bye bye Uncle Nick, bye bye Dorothy. Did we? And what did the train say?

Child: Brr brr.

Mother: Oh, do you remember? Was it a big blue train like Thomas?

Fivush believes talking about past events with children helps to create a shared history, which is important in developing family relationships and bonds. Children also learn to conceptualize themselves within the context of the family.

When families reminisce, they not only recall a sequence of events—they 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 content.

“The emotional aspect is particularly interesting because it’s 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 child’s participation by asking questions that provide bits of information to help the child remember, and also confirming and expanding on the child’s responses. Mothers also talk more about emotions than do fathers.

Both parents talk about the past more with daughters than with sons and also talk in more elaborative ways with daughters—eliciting 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 than boys.

“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 9–12 (the latter focuses on children with asthma). Interested families can call 404-712-9508.


Back to Emory Report March 26, 2001