Mama tells the best life stories (research)

I have 3 young kids myself and both my wife and I like to tell and read stories to our 3 sons. New research suggests I should better let my wife to do the stories from now on, but I think I’ll keep doing my part too, for sure when it’s not telling things like Little Red Riding Hood, but telling about my own life time experiences.

The study by Widaad Zaman from the University of Central Florida and her colleague Robyn Fivush from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, published in Sex Roles found mothers tell better, more emotional stories about past experiences which help children develop their emotional skills.

From the press release:

The primary objective of Zaman’s study was to compare the reminiscing styles of mothers and fathers with their pre-school daughters and sons. This included how they elaborated on the story and the extent to which their children engaged with the story while it was being told.

The researchers studied 42 families where the participating children were between four and five years old. Parents were asked 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. The parents took turns talking to the child on separate visits.

The researchers found that mothers elaborated more when reminiscing with their children than fathers. Contrary to previous research, however, Zaman’s study found no differences in the extent to which either parent elaborated on a story depending on the sex of the child. Mothers tended to include more emotional terms in the story than fathers, which they then discussed and explained to the child. This increased maternal engagement has the effect of communicating to the child the importance of their own version, perspective and feelings about the experience.

The authors contend that through their increased interaction with the child, mothers are helping their children work through and talk about their experiences more than fathers, regardless of the type of experience. This may reflect the mother’s efforts to try and help her child deal with difficult emotions, especially about negative experiences, all of which is related to better emotional well-being.

The authors conclude that “these results are intriguing, and a necessary first step to better understanding how parents socialize gender roles to girls and boys through narratives about the past, and how girls and boys may then incorporate these roles into their own narratives and their own lives.”

Abstract of the research:

Reminiscing about the past is an everyday activity that has implications for children’s developing memory and socioemotional skills. However, little research has systematically examined how mothers and fathers may differentially elaborate and engage their daughters and sons in reminiscing. In this study, we asked 42 broadly middle-class, highly educated U.S., mostly Caucasian mothers and fathers from the same families, living in the southeastern U.S., to reminisce about a happy, sad, peer conflict, parental conflict, playground and special outing experience with their 4-year-old child. Narratives were coded for parental styles of cognitive elaboration and joint engagement. Results indicated that mothers are both more elaborative and engaged with children than fathers are, especially about negative emotional and positive play experiences. Thus, mothers appear to be helping children recount and understand their personal past more than fathers, and specifically, in working through difficult emotions that may facilitate emotion regulation skills.

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