I’ve always wondered about one thing: how much of their childhood will children remember when they grow up? Surely every parent out there has been told “they won’t remember any of that!” at least once or twice, to which the defiant will answer with “Yes, but I will!”
Whether we admit it or not, we all know that they won’t really remember anything from these first few years, yet we continuously try to make their childhood as joyful and memorable from day one.
But is it worth it? Imagine all the sacrifices that parents endure during the first few years, such as sleepless nights. Or all the trouble parents go through for an experience the kids will enjoy, only to realize that by next year, it will not only be a thing of the past, but nonexistent in their children’s minds as well.
Perhaps it is this fear of everything being for naught that drives parents to take photos of every little thing their child does.
But think about it: can you remember anything from your childhood before you entered elementary? It’s hard to distinguish between what we really remember versus what is simply recounted to us by our family, or through photos we see.
So which of the things we do with our kids now will they remember? Hopefully it will be the many good times you spent together. But can you imagine if one of the few memories they bring with them all their life is that one time you messed up?
I decided to see what I could learn and realized that instead of how much children will remember, it should actually be about what age they actually start to remember. Studies show that the average age of “earliest first memories” for older children and adults is about 3 ½ years old.
Prior to that, there is the phenomenon of childhood or infantile amnesia, which is the inability of an adult to remember anything from the earlier years.
In the past, it was assumed that babies and toddlers lived in a “perpetually present” stage wherein they could not retain memories. However, many studies have since come out disproving this, with babies being able to repeat three step sequences after it is taught to them.
Depending on their age, they may be able to repeat this several days after the episode, weeks or even months after, showing that they remember enough from a past experience to apply it in the present.
Meanwhile, I’m sure many parents have often been surprised by their three-year-old child’s sudden statements or actions that prove they remember something that they may have learned or seen when they were still in diapers!
My daughter is four years old now but for some reason, she still remembers her grandmother surging forward (harmlessly) in the car at the stop light, and recounts it as she reminds her brother to sit in his car seat. That incident was about two years ago.
Strangely though, as the years go by, children seem to forget many of these memories. Childhood amnesia strikes again when a child loses the ability to remember earlier memories. For instance, your six-year-old may vividly recall his play dates when he was three years old, but wait another two to three years and ask him, and all you may get is a blank stare.
It is believed that it is somewhere around the age of 10 that a child’s memories begin to “crystallize,” and what they remember from their childhood, from this point on, remains the same until adulthood.
There are a number of theories on childhood amnesia, including the most popular, which would be the neurological development of the brain. Just as a human body grows over time, so does the brain, and perhaps with this, the ability to retain and process memories.
Another theory that has been proposed is that of the emotions. Researchers have noticed that among the top earliest memories are hospitalizations and the birth of a sibling—both highly emotional times for a child.
The theory of mind or developmental is also given much importance. It’s hard to develop memories of one’s self from the past and bring it into the present if there is no concept of “me” just yet.
In the case of babies, they usually relate to the world in connection to their primary caregiver, and it is only as toddlers that they begin to form and assert their own distinct self. Thus, they are able to begin organizing and retaining memories, but it is not until they are a little older that they begin to understand how these memories are a part of who they are.
A critical theory as well is language. According to the book “Psychology,” “There appears to be a direct correlation between the development of language in children, and the earliest age at which we are able to obtain childhood memories (around the age of four).”
As observed, babies and toddlers do not have a grasp of language, so whatever they experience remains just that, a nonverbal experience, as they do not yet have the capacity to connect to words what they are going through.
Are your memories doomed? Not necessarily. Obviously, there’s no way to get your child to remember every single great time you spent together, but if you like to talk, then you’re in luck.
Studies have shown that children (usually girls) of mothers with a “highly elaborative” style of conversation have earlier “first memories” which are usually also clearer and more vivid. Apparently, when parents converse in a detailed, repetitive and elaborate manner, children “relive” the experience and they “reinforce the same connections” in the brain.
Thus, the chance of it becoming a long-term memory increases. Asking detailed questions and incorporating the child’s answers also helps the child keep up with the conversation and story, from where she can eventually learn how to “organize memories.”
With science clearly pointing that the kids will barely remember these first years, is there any reason to get up in the middle of the night still?
Fortunately, yes. There are two kinds of memories—explicit and implicit—as proven by one of the most famous brain injury patients, Henry Molaison, who underwent a brain operation at the age of 27 in 1953 to rid himself of seizures, only to end up with amnesia.
For the next 55 years, until he passed away in 2008 at the age of 82, H.M. could not remember anything for more than 20 seconds. But during one test, he was asked to do a particularly challenging exercise. He repeated it over and over again, each time believing it was the first time. In the beginning, he did so with great difficulty. After several attempts, he mastered it without having any memory of doing it before.
And there, dear friends, lies our motivation. While it’s a little sad and heartbreaking to know that some of our most precious memories with our children will remain only with us as it is left behind on some distant shore called childhood, it is comforting to know that somehow, they will still take something with them.
They may not have the words or the capacity to remember how they were lovingly cradled to sleep every night. But in the end, they will grow up with an honest-to-goodness knowledge that they are loved and cherished beyond words. And that’s good enough for us.