The other day I came across a picture of my son when he was two years old, gazing wide-eyed into the camera during a trip to Puerto Rico. Memories came flooding back: his floppy sun hat, the white smudges of sunscreen on his cheeks, the ball he kicked around with some older kids, the joy of watching him take his first doggie paddle strokes between my wife and I in the clear turquoise water.
“I remember that toy bus I’m holding there,” he said, pointing to the picture.
That? I thought. We took you to one of the most beautiful places on earth, and what you recall is a plastic toy we could have bought anywhere?
As parents, we put so much effort into creating experiences for our children that we hope will paint the picture of a happy childhood. But what will our children actually remember when they grow up? And are memories something that we actually have the power to shape?
Kids do hold on to memories — just not always the ones you’d expect
We know that virtually no one remembers their infancy, and that memories of toddlerhood begin to fade as children grow. But there’s no exact science to knowing which experiences kids will carry with them as they get older, or which details they will forget.
Sometimes, as in the case with my son’s toy bus, the things our kids remember can seem pretty random.
“It’s unpredictable what they’re going to remember,” said Nora Newcombe, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who has studied children’s memories.
“The three- or four-year-old is going to both surprise you with how much they do remember sometimes, [and] disappoint you with how little they remember sometimes,” Newcombe told HuffPost. “Whereas by the time you get to six or seven you’re, memory-wise, almost dealing with an adult.”
But just because a 10-year-old can’t reconstruct events that occurred while they were in preschool, it doesn’t mean their memories of that time have disappeared entirely.
Newcombe draws a distinction between explicit and implicit memories. Explicit memories are the ones that you can report verbally, the stories that you tell. Kids don’t tend to have these before age two, and often don’t have them reliably before age seven. But they do have implicit memories: feelings from that time that they can’t necessarily put into words.
“What happens to you has an effect on you,” whether or not you can recall the details, Newcombe explained.
If feelings about an experience are strong, that can dictate whether or not the memory gets kept retained or lost.
Both kids and adults are more likely to remember things that carry a lot of negative feelings. There’s an evolutionary explanation for this, said Sarah Bren, a child and family psychologist based in Pelham, New York.
“Humans are more primed to pay attention to and remember dangerous or negative things, because that’s going to be more likely to keep us safe,” Bren said.
This explains why your child keeps reminding you of that one time you were late to pick them up, but never mentions all those days that you did manage to arrive on time.
“As much as us as parents are gonna feel a little crushed by that, this is our child’s evolutionary biology kicking in and helping them, you know, be more likely to survive.”
Luckily, experiences tied to positive emotion are also more likely to be remembered than those evoking neutral feelings. Whether or not you’re on time for pickup, if you arrive with a new puppy in your arms, it’s unlikely that your child will forget the image.
Is there anything parents can do to solidify their kids’ memories?
While we of course want our kids to hold on to the moments when they felt happy, sometimes we have other reasons for hoping they’ll recall a specific memory. We might hope that they remember an older relative who they only got to meet while they were young, for example, or a special trip that isn’t likely to be replicated. In these cases, there are a couple of things that you can do to help kids form a more lasting memory.
The first is making it into a narrative. By asking open-ended questions and confirming kids’ description of events, parental reminiscing can help children remember their experiences. These stories can then become a part of children’s autobiographical memory, building up their sense of who they are in the world.
Newcombe suggests that families “create archival things that can be referred to later,” such as photo albums or memory books. These needn’t be elaborate, says Newcombe.
“You can make materials available that will sort of carry forward a kind of generational connection,” she said.
Even if they don’t have personal memories of a person or an event, stories handed down by family members can become part of a child’s consciousness.
How to increase the odds of that “happy childhood”
The question of whether our kids deem their childhood a happy one isn’t tied to any one particular memory ― though one story can become emblematic of the way a person generally acted. (“The cousin who hit you with a baseball bat” pretty much sums up that person’s place in your life.)
A child’s healthy attachment to their caregiver is the cumulative effect of all those implicit memories, and whether or not there was a general sense of being cared for.
The trust a child has in their parent, explained Newcombe, is “not about any particular memory. That’s about general expectations. You know, the world is a good place, when I’m hungry, somebody gives me food.” The occasional parental misstep won’t undo the memory of all those years of attentive care.
By responding to their children’s needs and encouraging healthy attachment, parents may also be contributing to the strength of their children’s memories.
Bren notes that one of the ways attachment is measured in adults is by assessing the narrative quality of their memories. People who are more securely attached tend to have more coherent narratives. So it stands to reason, Bren explained, that “children who are having an experience where they also happen to be feeling safe and connected and secure with their caregiver, they’re going to be more likely to encode memories in a more narrative way and be more likely to recall them as adults with . . . a beginning and a middle and an end,” and “a thread that goes all the way through.”
While there is no way to guarantee that your child will always remember a specific detail, providing them with attentive caregiving throughout their childhood could help them build stronger memories.
Note that the occasions that spark these lasting memories are often spontaneous — not the sort of thing you can design with careful planning like the perfect birthday party.
“You can’t control what they end up remembering,” said Bren. But “we can trust that they’re going to remember what’s important to them.”
The sight of my son’s toy bus, for example, could one day be the key that unlocks a flood of implicit memories, and while he may not recall that early swim with us in the sea, he will, hopefully, be filled with the sensation of being loved.