Building positive early-childhood memories

grandfather, child, memories, childhood memories
When early memories are pleasant, they leave children with a template for happy times.

Parents make an effort to give children pleasant memories to carry into adulthood. They plan elaborate birthday parties and excursions, fret over special gifts and tell stories of successes and happy times as children grow. Over the years, they share sweet stories that become the shared history and connections that siblings have with each other.

Early memories are usually visual — a picture of something. They can be related to some brief conversational interchange overheard. They usually include a strong feeling: a very happy moment, a very scary or uncomfortable moment or an inexplicable moment of calculation and planning.

Ask anyone about the earliest thing they remember and they will stop, look away for a moment and then find it. It is their own. Once they have it, they usually have it forever.

Early memories are precious to us. Sometimes painful, but always precious.

Before age 5, most children cannot tell you a memory and many cannot do it before age 6. They are still living in the present and their language is used for questions and requests. The under-5 cannot construct a coherent story of a memory but when they get older and can, the memory may have happened at age 3 or 4.

In a kindergarten class I interviewed recently, this is what the children remembered :

“Running after the dog and falling down and breaking a tooth (at age 2).”

“Sliding fast down a pole before being quite ready, but it was still fun (at age 4).”

“Sitting on top of a slide and being afraid (while parents urged him to go down at age 3).”

Several children remembered the first day of preschool — some with pleasure, some with memories of crying. One child remembered being in the back yard during a playgroup. The mom came out with a tray of muffins and put them on top of the slide and called everyone over for a snack. This happened when the child was 18 months old.

We build our sense of self with memories. Parents can help children characterize and use their memories to build positive self-image. If parents listen and acknowledge the occurrence, they can help a child see a survivor rather than a victim, a courageous adventurer instead of foolhardy daredevil or a cautious planner instead of a cowardly chicken.

If first memories involve an accident or fearful event it does not mean you have to erase it. Every life is made of happy and sad events. The important thing to remember is to locate the memory your child relates in a sequence of events. You can add pieces to the story that help the child understand what came first and, equally essential, what came next. You can help a child remember the way that parents or friends helped and flesh out the story for reassurance or to avoid a similar problem in the future.

Lately, I have been collecting early memories. A young man remembers being 3, sitting between his parents in bed while they both had their arms around him. A man of 60 remembers being 4 and swinging on a swing with his grandfather, who died the following year. A woman in her 50s remembers staring at herself in a mirror with pleasure at a very young age. She had just cut her own hair. She also remembers her mother’s disapproval, but the early memory is that moment of pride. A woman from a family of 10 remembers the gift of a bright, rainbow-colored coat because her mother said, “Now I will always be able to pick you out in the crowd.”

When early memories are pleasant, they leave children with a template for happy times. The child who remembers the muffins on the slide will recreate that moment with her own children some day. The man who swung with his grandpa has made a point to do that with his grandchildren.

It’s important to remember that you can’t engineer your children’s memories. You can hope they remember the bedtime stories and the day the seeds you planted together sprouted. You can plan holidays with the hope that family gatherings will build memories that contribute to a child’s faith or sense of security. But children may well tell you that their earliest memory is of the day the dog ran away or an offhand conversation with a grandparent who gave them a piece of candy — or maybe didn’t after promising to. Children remember feelings. Then they make sense of the events.

Be aware that all of life is grist for memories but don’t be scared of the memories your children are acquiring. Some will be wonderful, hilarious or loving. Some will be painful or frightening. As the years go by, ask your children what they remember about earlier times. Then, help them make meaning out of their memories and learn from them. In the process, you build intimacy and another memorable moment when a parent listened closely and responded lovingly.