Storytellers are made, not born: The benefits of elaboratively reminiscing with your child

Key takeaways for caregivers

  1. Ask your children to remember what they did at school, other times they were away from you, or when you went on a special outing. If children cannot think of anything to say, ask more specific questions.
  2. Listen to what your children tell you. Ask follow-up questions, including how they felt about what happened. Avoid correcting your children about their impressions.
  3. These conversations can happen anytime there are moments to spare – for example, at a bus stop or in a waiting room.
  4. Elaborative reminiscing can support children’s developing language and literacy skills (e.g., narrative skills, vocabulary understanding, phonological awareness) and socioemotional development (e.g., less anxiety and withdrawal, increased helping behaviors, better understanding and control of negative emotions, improved autobiographical memory).

“What did you do in school today?”: Elaborative reminiscing can yield answers

Most parents, when picking up their child from school, have asked, “What did you do in school today?” and heard their child respond, “Nothing.”

What happens next depends on many factors, but mostly it depends on the parent. Some parents think their child just does not want to talk about their day and change the subject. Other parents challenge their child (e.g., by saying something like, “No, that was not what happened…”), which is usually no more successful at eliciting descriptions of the child’s experiences than changing the subject. Success would be getting a child’s own extended description of what happened during some experience.

child benefiting from reminiscing with father

Photo: Tatiana Syrikova. Pexels.

My colleague Carole Peterson (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada) and I wanted to understand better what strategies parents use that can effectively get children to share something about their day. We conducted a study in Newfoundland (Canada), with middle-class, European American families with two- to two-and-a-half year-old children.  We found that the most successful parent strategy for eliciting information was asking specific follow-up questions, such as, “What did you play at recess?” or “What stories did the teacher read to you?”

Children of parents who asked a lot of questions about one particular topic became the best narrators over a year later, telling lengthier stories that included more key elements, such as background information and details about how situations got resolved. We call such parents topic extendersOther researchers have found similar results and dubbed this kind of extensive conversing between parents and children elaborative reminiscing or joint reminiscing.

Elaboratively reminiscing benefits children’s language and socioemotional development 

Peterson and I, along with Beulah Jesso (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada), then engaged in an experiment in which we randomly assigned parents of children (average age 3 years and 7 months old) in families with low incomes to one of two conditions: In the first, we talked to parents about elaborative reminiscing and how important it could be to their children’s language acquisition; the second was a business-as-usual control group.

Collaborative, elaborative reminiscing with children of various ages benefits the children linguistically, cognitively, emotionally, and academically.

After a year, despite not specifically mentioning vocabulary to parents, children in the experimental (elaborative reminiscing) group had significantly better receptive vocabulary (the ability to understand words) than those in the control group. After another year, they also had significantly better narrative skills. We learned that storytellers are made, not born.

Elaborative reminiscing benefits additional areas of language and socioemotional development

Elaborative reminiscing benefits children in a variety of ways. Research has shown that, in addition to improvements in children’s vocabulary and narrative structure, elaborative reminiscing increases children’s phonological awareness, which is critical for learning to read. Reading interactively with children does not have the same effect.

In addition to promoting language benefits, elaborative reminiscing affects children’s socioemotional development in many ways, reducing children’s tendencies to act out or have internalizing problems (e.g., sadness, anxiety, withdrawal), and increasing their prosocial skills (e.g., being kind and helpful to others). Such reminiscing helps children understand their negative emotions and regulate them. Children’s memory of their own lives (autobiographical memory) is also more coherent.

Teaching parents how to elaboratively reminisce

Many different families have benefitted from learning of the importance of elaborative reminiscing. Children who live in poverty benefit; after all, elaborative reminiscing costs nothing, requires no particular accomplishment or comfort with reading books on the part of their parents, and is fun.

child benefiting from reminiscing with mother

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto. Pexels.

Parents from New Zealand families of diverse backgrounds have benefited from this kind of instruction. In addition, my colleague Ashleigh Hillier (University of Massachusetts Lowell) and I have taught parents of teenagers on the autism spectrum to engage in elaborative reminiscing, something that the parents had not considered important but that extended parents’ talk about the past with their teenaged children.

Moreover, this type of reminiscing may even benefit children who have been maltreated by their mothers. When these mothers learn to elaboratively reminisce with their children, their children may eventually have better physiological regulation.

Cultural qualities of reminiscing

Despite the fact that observing and learning about elaborative reminiscing has been successful in a number of different cultures, parent-child talk about the past has documented some cultural differences. Many Asian cultures do not value extensive talk about an individual’s past experiences. In particular, many Japanese parents consider such lengthy talk unsuitable. Cultural differences in reminiscing conversations have also been found in Western European cultures, such as Germany, Sweden, and Estonia.

How to elaboratively reminisce with children

Parents should understand that collaborative, elaborative reminiscing with their children at various ages benefits the children linguistically, cognitively, emotionally, and academically. In this work, parents are encouraged to accept their children’s view of what happened, even if the parents have different ideas.

The more you reminisce with your child, the better they will get at doing so and the more you will foster their well-being in many areas of development.

I have collected examples of children’s talk about going to Disney World and Disneyland. When parents asked children to tell their grandparents their favorite part of the adventure, they expected children to say “meeting Goofy” or “going on the It’s a Small World ride.” Instead, children said their favorite things were experiences like the “blue lights on the floor of the plane,” “a real dead armadillo on the side of the road,” and “two sinks in our bathroom.” Parents who accept their children’s point of view learn a lot about their children’s thoughts and values and foster their development.

The best times to reminisce with children include when you are eating dinner together or waiting for doctors or buses or driving somewhere together. Children especially enjoy being asked about what to them are notable events. For example, you might ask: Did anybody do something weird in preschool today? Did you get hurt? Do you remember what happened the last time we went to the doctor’s office?

Tell them about experiences you have had (e.g., the time you got in trouble with a teacher). The more you reminisce with your child, the better they will get at doing so and the more you will foster their well-being in many areas of development.

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