Elaine Reese Ph.D.

Tell Me a Story

Fathers and Family Storytelling: A Natural Fit

Fathers who tell family stories can enrich their children's development

Posted Jun 15, 2013

Growing up in Texas in the 1970s, the division of labor between my parents was always clear to me: My mother stayed at home with us while we were young, did all the cooking and housekeeping, and my father earned a living, looked after the yard and cars, and was the disciplinarian. My parents also seemed to have worked out the storytelling responsibilities: It was almost always my mother who read to us, sometimes during the day and always at bedtime, a comforting ritual that extended well past the age we three kids could all read on our own. My father, on the other hand, was the storyteller. He regaled us at mealtimes and family gatherings with stories of his family’s past and of our own exploits as toddlers that we could no longer remember. Often these tales were of mischief, such as the time my big brother (then about 3) crept up behind my dad’s armchair and hit him on the head with a frying pan after watching The Three Stooges – or hair-raising, such as the time our Uncle Felix fell while running with a stick of bamboo which then rammed through his lip. Between the two of them, my parents offered up a panoply of stories for us to carry through life. We know now that adolescents with a richer knowledge of family history have stronger self-concepts, lower anxiety, and fewer behavior problems (Duke, Lazarus, & Fivush, 2008).

Is this gendered division of storytelling labor typical, especially among today’s parents? Yes – in some ways – but in others, not at all. It is true that men report reading non-fiction (especially manuals and technical reports) more often than do women, who report that they are better readers of fiction than non-fiction (Scales & Rhee, 2001). Yet men and women don’t differ in the amount of time that they report reading. Nor do mothers and fathers differ in the way they read fictional storybooks with their young children, although fathers can be more interactive than mothers when reading non-fiction with their children (Anderson et al., 2004). It is also true that when telling stories of their own family’s past, mothers tend to tell stories about relationships, such as baking cookies with Grandma as a child, whereas fathers tell stories of adventure and mischief, much like my dad’s stories (Fiese & Bickham, 2004). Yet again, mothers and fathers don’t differ much in their style of telling stories of the past with their children (Reese & Fivush, 1993). (In an upcoming post, however, I’ll talk about some ways that parents tell stories differently with their daughters and sons.) Critically, all of these storytelling practices are linked to positive outcomes for children’s development. For instance, experimental studies reveal that when parents are taught to read books and tell family stories in richer and more interactive ways, their children have a larger expressive vocabulary (Whitehurst et al., 1988), better narrative and memory skills (Reese & Newcombe, 2007), and more astute understanding of emotions (van Bergen et al., 2009) compared to children whose parents have not been taught enriched story reading and storytelling techniques. 

The message for dads who are interested in storytelling with their kids? Go with the stories that you feel most comfortable reading and telling, because they all appear to be valuable for your child’s development and well-being.

DO tell stories that you think your child will be interested in hearing, which will depend on their age and their interests. (You might want to save the manual on your new saw for your own bedtime reading!) Funny stories about family vacations or everyday mishaps, such as the time the garbage bag exploded, always make for memorable storytelling material at any age. Especially with younger children, DO take an interactive approach in which you ask them questions about what happened or how they felt, and let them ask you questions too. With older children and teens, make sure to pause for their questions and for them to provide their own story on the theme if they wish.

So, on Father’s Day this year, gift each of your children with a special story about something endearing they did as a young child, or reminisce with your children about past Father’s Days, including the day you became a father. How did you feel? What did you say? What was your first reaction upon seeing your first child for the very first time? If you have more than one child, be sure to include some highlights of subsequent births as well!

For more tips on reading and telling stories as a family, see my book Tell me a story: Sharing stories to enrich your child’s world (Oxford, 2013).

References

Anderson, J., Anderson, A., Lynch, J., & Shapiro, J. (2004). Examining the effects of gender and genre on interactions in shared book reading. Reading Research and Instruction, 43, 1–20.

Duke, M., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268-272.

Fiese, B. H., & Bickham, N. L. (2004). Pin-curling grandpa’s hair in the comfy chair: Parents’ stories of growing up and potential links to socialization in the preschool years. In M. W. Pratt & B. H. Fiese (Eds.), Family stories and the lifecourse (pp. 259–277). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Reese, E., & Fivush, R. (1993). Parental styles of talking about the past. Developmental Psychology, 29, 596-606.

Reese, E., & Newcombe, R. (2007). Training mothers in elaborative reminiscing enhances children’s autobiographical memory and narrative. Child Development, 78, 1153-1170.

Scales, A. M., & Rhee, O. (2001). Adult reading habits and patterns. Reading Psychology, 22, 175-203.

Van Bergen, P., Salmon, K., Dadds, M. R., & Allen, J. (2009). The effects of mother training in emotion-rich, elaborative reminiscing on children’s shared recall andemotion knowledge. Journal of Cognition and Development, 10, 162–187.

Whitehurst, G. J., Falco, F., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., & Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture-book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24, 552–558.