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Professor Elaine Reese Research Interests

 Associate Professor Elaine Reece

Tel 64 3 479 8441
Visit Professor Reese's profile

Social Influences on Children’s Development

One way that parents shape their children’s learning and development is through their talk. Whether they are talking to children as they play, telling or reading them stories, or talking to them about the past or future, parents’ conversation matters for children’s development.

Children's Development Aided by Parents' Talk

Father reading to son in Assoc Prof Elaine Reese's Research LabI study the way that parents’ talk creates change in children’s language, narrative, memory, literacy, and self-understanding. I am especially interested in the role of parents’ storytelling with their children. Parents’ stories range from ready-made versions available in books to stories that they tell about their own lives and their children’s lives. Both the quantity and the quality of these stories make a difference in children’s development. The sheer quantity of words that parents use affects their children’s language development. However, the quality of parents’ speech is equally important. Parents who ask their children open-ended questions about their experiences, such as, “What was your favourite part of the zoo?” are encouraging their children to put their experiences into words. This practice helps children’s language development but also enriches their memory development, their narrative skills, and even their reading acquisition. 

Delving into the Emotional Aspects of Stories Creates a More Coherent and Positive Sense of Self in Children

Mother, Child, Aunty telling stories in Assoc Prof Elaine Reese's Research LabParents who delve into the emotional aspects of stories and past events, especially the negative aspects, also have children with a more coherent and more positive sense of self. Critically, there are differences between boys and girls in their narrative skills and self-understanding from a young age. We are finding that parents need to continue to help boys understand their emotions and past experiences into middle childhood, whereas girls are mastering these skills at a younger age.

The Importance of Early Emotional Relationships in Children's Learning

The basis for these effects of parental talk on children’s development is grounded in the child’s relationship with the parent from a young age. Those toddlers who are securely attached to their caregivers benefit more from their parents’ talk, whereas children who are insecurely attached to their parents show fewer benefits from their parents’ talk over early childhood. Thus, the early emotional relationship with the parent is essential in children’s learning.

Storytelling in Early Childhood Evokes Earlier Memories as Adolescents

Father and teenage daughter participants in Assoc Prof Elaine Reese's Research walking across bridgeIn my lab, we are now assessing the outcomes of these early parent-child conversations as we follow the children in our longitudinal studies into adolescence. We are finding that children whose parents told elaborative stories with them in early childhood have earlier memories and stronger self-concepts as adolescents. We are extending these investigations to other cultures to explore whether Maori adolescents, who have the earliest memories of any culture studied, develop a coherent life story at a younger age than Chinese or European New Zealand adolescents, who tend to have later memories. Across cultures, we expect adolescents’ life stories to be linked to their self-concept and to their psychological well-being.

Supported by

Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand
National Institute of Child Health and Development
Foundation for Research in Science and Technology


Professor Robyn Fivush (Emory University)
Professor William Friedman (Oberlin College)
Professor Wendy Grolnick (Clark University)
Professor Harlene Hayne (University of Otago)
Associate Professor Qi Wang (Cornell University)
Dr Elizabeth Schaughency (University of Otago)
Dr Mele Taumoepeau (University of Otago)
Dr Catherine Haden (Loyola University)
Professor Peter Ornstein (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
Professor Lynne Baker-Ward (North Carolina State University)
Professor Patricia Bauer (Emory University)
Professor Marjorie Taylor (University of Oregon)

Other Affiliations

Leader of Education Domain, Growing Up in New Zealand
University of Auckland
School of Population Health


Reese, E. (in press). Coherence of personal narratives across the lifespan: A multidimensional model and coding method. Journal of Cognition and Development.

Reese, E. (in press). Culture, imagination, and narrative. In M. Taylor (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reese, E. (2009). Development of autobiographical memory: Origins and consequences. In P. Bauer (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Vol. 37, pp. 145-200. The Netherlands: Elsevier.

Reese, E., Suggate, S., Long, J., & Schaughency, E. (2009). Children’s oral narrative and reading skills in the first three years of instruction. Reading and Writing.

Trionfi, G., & Reese, E. (2009). A good story: Children with imaginary companions create richer narratives. Child Development, 80, 1310-1322.

Reese, E., Hayne, H., & MacDonald, S. (2008). Looking back to the future: Maori and Pakeha mother-child birth stories. Child Development, 79, 114-125.

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

Bird, A., & Reese, E. (2006). Emotional reminiscing and the development of an autobiographical self. Developmental Psychology, 42, 613-626.

Link to additional publications

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