What Parents Can Do To Shape Their Kids' Early Memories

Children form memories way earlier than we once thought. Here's why that matters, especially now.
Children can remember things from earlier in their childhood than we once believed.
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Children can remember things from earlier in their childhood than we once believed.

Over the past couple of years, many parents have asked themselves: How much of the pandemic will my children remember? And how might those lasting memories — as well as all the others they carry from their childhood — shape who they become?

I’ve personally wondered about that with my own children, especially my toddler, who has now lived more than half his life during an unprecedented global health crisis. I like to think he’s generally a happy kid who’s had a happy life so far, but how do I know if he’ll be carrying around some not-so-lovely COVID-19 memories for years to come?

While memory is complex and many of those questions can’t really be answered, what is clear to experts is that kids’ memories are stronger and better than they once thought. The long-term memories they form may not be totally reliable, but they can still recollect a remarkable amount from their early years.

Here’s why that matters, and what parents can do about it:

The idea that kids can’t remember anything before age 3 is wrong

Sometimes when I’m annoyed with my toddler’s antics and I’m not necessarily being the nicest, most patient mom, I comfort myself with the idea that he probably won’t remember any of this.

Not so, according to Carole Peterson, a professor who studies language and memories at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

“Children often remember farther into the past than we once believed they could,” she told HuffPost.

Several of Peterson’s studies focus on a phenomenon known as “childhood amnesia,” or the idea that kids (and adults!) remember very little about life before age 3 or 4. For decades, experts thought that childhood amnesia was due to the fact that kids’ brains simply could not form memories before a certain point.

But Peterson and other researchers have found that that’s not necessarily true. One of Peterson’s studies, for example, showed that children who have medical emergencies when they’re just 2 years old — and who are interviewed years later — can absolutely remember central components of their experiences. They may not remember them as clearly as children who were older at the time of their health events, but the memories were still there. Other studies suggest that children remember things that happened to them when they were around 3 very well at age 5, 6 and 7, but they start to lose those memories around age 8 or 9.

All of this is to say there isn’t a clear consensus about when young kids form lasting memories, and it depends on the child. Kids also tend to not be very good at accurately dating their memories, Peterson said, which complicates our understanding of all of this. A 4-year-old, for example, might recall an event from when they were 2 but think it was relatively recent.

The bottom line for parents, Peterson said, is that children may indeed remember things earlier than we think they do.

Emotional events tend to stick with children the most

“Anything that is emotionally salient, kids will remember more often,” Jenny Yip, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist, previously told HuffPost. That’s true for both younger kiddos and older children.

In our present moment, that means kids who’ve had a particularly hard stretch during the pandemic might hold on to those memories more than others.

But there’s also some good news: Most kids are unlikely to be changed significantly by a one-time emotional event or memory.

“Singular events, other than those which are truly traumatic, rarely have a long-term effect on children’s emotional and social development,” Mark Reinecke, a clinical psychologist and the clinical director of the Child Mind Institute’s San Francisco Bay Area centre, previously told HuffPost. “By and large, children are resilient.”

Parents can really help shape what kids of all ages remember

Part of what Peterson does as a researcher is help children with memory fluency. So she’ll ask a child what their earliest memory is — and recalling that memory will often help the child tap into others.

This matters, she said, because children can use their memories to help create a sense of who they are as they get older.

“It makes a difference how parents talk to children. If parents talk to children about their experiences, about what they did last week, last summer, last year, it’s like any muscle being developed,” Peterson said. “The child develops a habit of thinking more about their memories and coding them more.”

And while it might be parents’ inclination to only play up happy memories and avoid talking about negative ones, it’s actually important to include both, she said.

“One of the important things children must do is they must be able to figure out and come to terms with negative things that happened in their life,” Peterson said. “Talking about them and helping the child understand them and helping the child feel that they have some control, that they dealt with it well — those are important things to do.”