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Are There Gender Differences in Telling Family Stories?

Women weave the family stories, and pass this task on to their daughters.

Last Saturday night at a party, I asked someone about his family vacation. He said, “Oh, I don’t remember that stuff. You’ll have to ask my wife.” It’s a comment that’s good for a laugh, but is it also true? Do women remember family events better than men do, and are they responsible for keeping and telling these stories for the family? And if so, why is this important?

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Many years ago, psychologists Michael Ross and Diane Holmberg published an article examining husbands and wives separately recalling important relationship events, such as their first date, or a shared vacation. Wives’ memories were more detailed and vivid than husbands’. More to the point, when husband and wife came back together to compare what they had independently recalled, there were, not surprisingly, some differences in the details remembered—and husbands almost always deferred to their wives’ memory of the event. Both members of these couples claimed that women simply remembered their shared family life better than men. More to the point, they believed that keeping the family stories was the wife’s job.

In the Family Narratives Lab, my student, Natalie Merrill, and I wanted to see how this actually plays out in everyday family interactions, especially since the previous work was many years old, and gender roles have certainly changed over the last couple of decades. Do mothers tell more stories than fathers with their families? Do they tell these stories differently?

So we tape recorded everyday dinner time conversations to see how families interact, and to find out who might be telling family stories. Our families were broadly middle class families with two opposite gender parents and between two and six children. The conversations were quite lively! And heavily storied!

Parents and children talked about their daily adventures and updated everyone on what was happening in their lives. They also talked about other people, such as what neighbors and friends were up to, and more general knowledge, often related to what children were learning at school. But critically, they also told family stories, both stories of shared family experiences such as holidays and vacations, and stories of family history from before the children were born—stories about the parents when they were growing up, and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on.

All the families we recorded told at least a couple of these kinds of family stories around an average dinnertime meal, suggesting that these stories are told fairly frequently in everyday family life. And these stories were told by everyone around the table; parents and children were equally likely to start this kind of story: “Remember when we went on that scary roller coaster?” or “Grandpa had a vegetable garden too, didn’t he?” So it seems that everyone enjoys, and is invested in, telling and sharing these stories.

But once the story was started, mothers contributed more to the telling than fathers or children. Mothers were especially likely to ask questions that included new information but also drew other family members into telling pieces of the story, like “Yeah, that roller coaster was really scary. Remember how your sister really screamed and you made fun of her?” and “Grandpa grew carrots and string beans. And do you remember what else he told you about that garden?” Everyone shares in the telling, but mothers essentially provide the glue that pieces what everyone else remembers into a coherent story, and in doing this, mothers provide more of the details of the story.

It is not that mothers just talk more overall, or ask more questions than anyone else. When talking about other topics, such as what happened at school that day, or at work, or talking about more general life concerns, fathers talk as much as mothers do, and children talk as much as parents. So it is only when telling these family stories that mothers take on this family role. Mothers do seem to be the keepers of the family stories in the sense that they make sure that once these stories are introduced into the family conversations, the story is told in an extended, elaborated way that integrates what everyone remembers.

And in families where mothers do this more, daughters ask more questions and contribute more detail to the emerging story, suggesting that daughters are modeling themselves after their mothers. In anthropology, the person responsible for tracking family stories across generations is called the “kin-keeper.” Carolyn Rosenthal surveyed families living in modern, western suburbs, and found that, in most families, one person was the acknowledged “kin-keeper”, and that person was almost always the mother. Moreover, when families talk about the importance of preserving family stories across time, mothers and daughters agree that this job passes from mother to daughter. So by asking more questions and providing more details about the family stories, mothers are modeling for their daughters that this is what women do.

Why is this important? Research from the Family Narratives Lab also shows that adolescents from families that tell and share more detailed and elaborated family stories show higher levels of well-being; they have higher self-esteem and higher social and academic competence. So telling the stories matters. And it seems that mothers make sure the family stories keep getting told.

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