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Can Parents Influence Childhood Memories?

Photo of a children at a birthday party blowing out candles on a birthday cake

One of my earliest memories is from when I was five years old. It was a summer afternoon in my backyard. Our belligerent goat was strutting around, the tiny rooster was squawking like he wasn’t actually scared of the chickens, and my sister and I were eating crisps in the sunshine. She finished hers in a few gulps and turned her gaze to me.

“You’re doing it wrong,” she noted.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re eating them wrong. Here, let me show you.”

I was really lucky to have an older sister kind enough to teach me the right way to eat snack food. She even undertook the task of eating my crisps and let me practice on air while she patiently demonstrated the right way to chew until the packet was empty. I remember this for several reasons: sitting in the sun with my sister felt really nice until she stole my food, and the sheer genius of her cunning was repeated in family circles for years to come.

Why memory is important

Research tells me that there is nothing remarkable about this as an early memory – most adults can only remember back until they were five, four at the earliest, and memories tend to be based around significant relationships. Incidents that become part of family lore are also more likely to be recorded in long-term memory.

This doesn’t mean that memory doesn’t function properly until the age of five though. There was a time when it was thought that babies and toddlers couldn’t remember much at all, they were just kind of eternally surprised and confused. However, now we know that even three-month-old babies can remember things that happened a few weeks ago (a quarter of their lifetime!).

Research has also found that all childhood experiences exert a significant impact on who we become as adults, regardless of whether we can actively recall our childhoods or not. The good news is that as parents, we have some influence about the type and quality of memories our children will lay down. It’s also possible to boost our children’s literacy skills by discussing family memories and events. So what do you think your kid’s earliest memory will be?

How memory works

The earliest proof of memory has been found while babes are still in the womb. Researchers found babies responded with recognition to a series of sounds they had heard in utero at 30 weeks. This also corresponds to neuron development in the babies’ brains. We don’t know how long newborns can remember things for, but from six months of age, babies are capable of…

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