Sex Roles [sers] pp1195-sers-486371 May 3, 2004 23:30 Style ﬁle version June 3rd, 2002
Sex Roles, Vol. 50, Nos. 9/10, May 2004 (
Talking About Past Emotions: Conversations Between
Peruvian Mothers and Their Preschool Children
and Camila Fern
In this study, we examined gender and age variations in the use of emotion words during
mother–child conversations about experiences. Thirty-two middle-class, Spanish-speaking,
Peruvian mothers and their 3- and 5-year-old children participated in this study. Conversations
were audiotaped, transcribed, and coded for number, types of emotions discussed, and con-
versational contexts in which the emotion word was embedded. Age differences were found
only in children’s use of emotion words. Gender differences were found only in mothers’ use
of emotion words. Findings are discussed in relation to socialization practices of emotional
expression and gender in middle-class Peruvian society. Our results support and provide a de-
velopmental perspective on ﬁndings obtained in studies of adult emotional expression across
KEY WORDS: mother–child conversations; culture; gender; emotion.
Children gain the ability to understand and dis-
cuss emotions quite early in their development. By
their second birthday, children are able to label and
comment on their own and others’ emotions (Dunn,
Bretherton, & Munn, 1987). Children’s ability to dis-
cuss emotions spontaneously, as well as their overall
understanding of emotions, is related to the extent
and the ways in which parents discuss emotions with
them (Denham, Zoller, & Couchoud, 1994; Dunn,
Brown, & Beardsall, 1991). Studies of parental dis-
cussions about emotions have demonstrated gender
differences in both the frequency and the ways in
which parents discuss emotions with their children.
Dunn et al. (1987), for instance, reported that from ap-
proximately 18 months of age, mothers talked about
emotions more with girls than they did with boys,
and therefore by 24 months of age, girls were more
An earlier version of the paper was presented at the 2001 Meeting
of the Society for Research on Child Development in Minneapolis.
Department of Applied Psychology, The Steinhardt School of Ed-
ucation, New York University, New York, New York.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Applied Psychology, The Steinhardt School of Education, New
York University, 239 Greene St., 5th Floor, New York, New York
10003; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
likely to talk about emotions than were boys. The gen-
der patterns found in developmental studies parallel
those found in studies of adult emotional expression,
which have led scholars to argue that the distinct mes-
sages boys and girls receive during their formative
years are partly responsible for the gender variations
in emotional expression during the adult years (Brody
& Hall, 2000).
Among the various conversational contexts in
which emotions are discussed, parent–child conver-
sations about children’s experiences play a signiﬁ-
cant role in children’s later understanding and expres-
sion of emotions. During these conversations, children
learn to organize their lived experiences into a co-
herent narrative of self, weaving factual information
with their subjective interpretation of the experience.
Fivush (1993) argued that the subjective or evalua-
tive aspect of narratives provides the “critical link be-
tween personal memories and self-concept” (p. 44).
It is this evaluative or subjective component of nar-
ratives that renders personal stories tellable by re-
vealing intimate aspects of the narrator to both self
and others. Not only do discussions of past emo-
tions in these contexts afford children with the op-
portunity to explore and develop critical aspects of
2004 Plenum Publishing Corporation