Revisited Article: “Why study children’s narratives?” Signal Vol. 1, No. 3

Photo of an infant at Perpectives article May 24th, 2019

Signal – Perspectives Articles Revisited

The open source WAIMH online resource of papers published from the Signal and more latterly from Perspectives ( continues to grow. Over the next year we will periodically post a previously published Signal paper and will engage with you about the ongoing relevance of these papers for your current work and reflections.

In this post we feature the following article: Daniel Stern (1993). Why study children’s narratives. The Signal, Vol. 1, No. 3. In this paper Stern identifies eight reasons for studying children’s narratives. He concludes as follows: … Is a narrative perspective, if one can call it that, a new way of looking at things that is sufficiently general that it embraces aspects of cognitive, social, affective, etc., psychology, such that much of our understanding must be recast in this light? Or will the study or narratives eventually end up defining a reasonably well bounded domain of specialized study? The answer is not yet in. So, we find ourselves in the constructive uncertainty of not knowing the importance of this new domain of study to the field in general. Discovering that in itself will push things forward on many fronts (Stern, 1993).

Stern posed these questions in 1993. Now, 26 years later we are in a place to reflect and respond. The Perspectives team are very keen to hear from you about your work with narratives in young children. Sharing your expertise with the WAIMH community can take many forms: it may be an article alert; a brief summary of a piece of research you are working on; a classical article or concept that anchors your current practice and research; and/ or for example, a therapeutic case study. We will keep the call for contributions open until the end of June. All contributions will be acknowledged, collated, and shared in a later post. Contributions can be sent to Maree Foley, Editor of WAIMH Perspectives (


Why study children’s narratives?

The study of children’s narratives has increased greatly in the past few years and continues to do so. Why has it become so interesting to us now? I will leave aside the important fact that appropriate methods for the study of these narratives are relatively recent, since this is both cause and effect (see especially Peterson & McCabe, 1983 and Nelson & Colleagues, 1986, 1989, for their application of narrative methods to children). I can think of at least eight reasons for this surge in interest.

A first and general reason concerns the question of what is the level of description we use for the behaviors that are of interest to us. If one is interested in visual perception; for instance, the “image” as composed of visual “primitives” is the appropriate level of description. If one is interested in language, depending at what levels, there are phonemes, words, propositions, speech acts, etc. If, however, one is interested in a level related to sharing news or gossip about one another, telling or comprehending stories, parsing interpersonal experiences, making sense out of motivated human behavior, reconstructing a life history, recalling autobiographical memories, etc., what then is the appropriate “fundamental” level of description, if there is one?

The level of description required to render these experiences meaningful appears to be very complex, multimodal, heterogenous, highly susceptible to cultural influence and far from “fundamental.” But that may not be the case. And that is one place where the study of narrative plays a crucial role. It provides one way of describing this level of reality in terms of basic goal-oriented units. One such example would be agents who execute acts with some instrumentality because they have desires, beliefs, motives to achieve some goal in a particular context (e.g., Burke, 1945; Bruner, 1990). This kind of unit can also be put into journalistic parlance, thus, who, where, when, why, what, and how? Or it can be varied to accommodate Freud’s basic motivational unit, an agent pushed by desire to engage in a “specific activity” with an “object” in order to achieve some “aim” with the discharge of psychic energy. One can also rearrange this unit to accommodate the corresponding unit in ethology, theories or motor action, affect theory, etc. (see Stern, 1993).

Equally, there has arisen a domain of related study that provides units of description for representing this level of reality: “scripts” (Shank & Abelson, 1977), “event-representations” (Nelson & Gruendel, 1981) and “event schemas” (Mandler, 1979, 1983). We seem to be moving towards a more solid base for describing a level of reality involving human events that are causally connected by virtue of being motivated and goal-oriented. Narratives are largely composed of such units. They offer a data source and testing ground for the evolution of our understanding of this “fundamental” descriptive level of reality and its development.

A second reason concerns the recent interest in the self and its development. When children begin to tell autobiographical narratives after about 3 years of age, it is thought that narrative-making is a kind of mental work space laboratory for constructing a “trying-on” of different versions of self-description. The narrative version that “wins out”, so to speak, becomes the “official” public version of the self. The historical, autobiographical, narrative self thus gets constructed (Brunner, 1990; Nelson, 1989; Wolf, 1989). This narrative self is best seen as a reorganization of many other self-concepts and self-experiences, e.g., the core self, and intersubjective self (Stern, 1985), the self-conscious or self-reflective self (Lewis, 1987), the ecological self, and the social self (Neisser, 1993), etc.

The narrative self is yet another aspect and another developmental level of the self, and is the key for any psychology of the self. Understanding the narrative self is also crucial to several clinical issues, which brings me to the third reason.

The study of children’s narratives gives several on clinical issues of interest. The “self’ is not only interesting for normal developmental psychology, but also for psychopathology. The idea of a constructed self, or even more extreme, multiple selves or a distributed self offers ways of thinking about various clinical problems that have long been known. The notion of a “false self’ is readily conceived with a perspective that permits the “constructed self,” i.e., the narrative self to wander far from “historical lived experiences.” Similarly, dissociative states are easily imagined as a developmental consequence of multiple constructions, parallel narratives, etc. Along these Iines, the work on the parents’ contribution to the nature of the child’s narrated self (e.g., Wolf, 1989) is a very promising approach (i.e., can a parent in coconstructing a narrative with the child pull the child’s narrative (his official past history) away from (or back towards) what the child “really” experienced or would have ended up constructing if left alone, or what could have resulted from a co-construction with someone else?). This area of co-construction is important in that most children’s autobiographical accounts of what happened are, in fact, co-constructions with their family.

Emde and his colleagues (1988, 1992) have used the formation of children’s narratives in an inventive way to view moral and superego development, normal and pathological. They elaborate for the child a “story stem” with the use of dolls and props, e.g. a moral dilemma where the child is placed between a prohibition and a desire. They then ask the child to finish the story using both symbolic play and narration. This kind of technique is similar to how the TAT is used with children. However, the narrative perspective on the childs’ response is not the same as a perspective of “projection” of an inner reality. The narrative approach complements other approaches. The same situation now prevails with the use of the Separation Anxiety Test photographs (SAT) scale (Greenberg, 1985) to evaluate attachment patterns in children beyond the age appropriate for the Ainsworth Strange Situation. A narrative approach may prove to be very helpful in these inquiries.

The fourth reason concerns our basic models for viewing continuity and the understanding of the present in terms of the past. We have seen in history and psychoanalysis a relative shift from “historical truth” to “narrative truth,” where narrative truth is measured in terms of the coherence, comprehensivity, continuity, completeness, plausibility, and efficacy of a constructed narrative about what may have happened and not what “really” happened, which is usually unknowable.

It is interesting, in this light, that the Adult Attachment Interview (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985) has had the surprising finding that the Style of the mother’s narrative (coherence, etc.) about her own mother is often a better predictor of the pattern of attachment that she actually had as a child. It is in this sense that the narrative approach poses a constructive challenge to our systems of explanation that apply to continuity in normal and abnormal development.

A fifth reason concerns the study of the acquisition of language. The narrative is another way to look at the transformation of non -verbal understanding into verbal form. Nelson & Colleagues (1989) in a study of the bedtime monologues of a 2 year old child demonstrates the utility of this approach.

A sixth and seventh reason concerns the use of studies of narration as alternative or complementary ways to approach the examination of episodic memory and social cognition. For example, in our laboratory, we are exposing children to a fairly unusual scenario in which they participate, and which is designed to evoke different affects: joy, sadness, fear, surprise. We then ask the children to narrate “what happened” right after the event, two weeks later, and one year later. In this way, we have control over and know “what happened” during the reference event that serves as the basis for the later narrations. Since we have a televised record of the children’s affective responses during the reference event, we can evaluate the influence of different affective responses and how they are coped with in translating experience – through memory – into narration. We can also evaluate the effect of different social contexts of telling on the ultimate form of the narration.

An eighth reason for studying children’s narratives concerns the obvious need to study subjective experiences more deeply. Without a better phenomenology of subjective experiences, the cognitive and neurosciences will eventually be severely limited. Autobiographical narratives are among the few privileged windows into this domain of reality.

Finally, if there are eight or more good reasons for something, that is too many, and we should get suspicious. Is a narrative perspective, if one can call it that, a new way of looking at things that is sufficiently general that it embraces aspects of cognitive, social, affective, etc., psychology, such that much of our understanding must be recast in this light? Or will the study or narratives eventually end up defining a reasonably well bounded domain of specialized study? The answer is not yet in. So we find ourselves in the constructive uncertainty of not knowing the importance of this new domain of study to the field in general. Discovering that in itself will push things forward on many fronts.

Editor’s (Charles H. Zeanah) Note:

Daniel Stern is Professor of Psychology at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.



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