Early Childhood Memories Related to Parental Stories

Early Childhood Memories Related to Parental Stories

Parental stories help children form lasting memories.

If you have early childhood memories, it’s probably because stories related to you by your parents helped form these memories.  Hopefully your memories and thus your stories are pleasant and positive.

What is truly interesting is why you have these memories at all.

Object Permanence 

Researchers first stated, using the theory of object permanence, that babies couldn’t form memories.  When an object was covered—it was out of sight and out of mind.

Forming Memories with a Developing Brain

But Nicholas Day recounts in an article for Slate new findings by Patricia Bauer, professor of psychology at Emory University.  She says very young children are able to form memories, like adults, but they have to do so utilizing a hippocampus and prefrontal cortex that is still developing.  They capture only part of the present as it flows by and such memories will not move with them into adulthood.

Memories Stick for a Social Reason

So what causes memories to begin to stick forever around the age of three?  Bauer states: “Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.”  She states that adults have a fine-mesh net to catch the memories, but babies have a big-holed colander: the memories slip through while the baby’s developing brain is trying to organize and stabilize them.  Children just under two are able to retain more—even though memories of their second birthday party won’t last into adulthood.  Bauer sites that the immature brain is definitely one reason, but most interesting is the lack of language to represent those experiences.

So why do memories begin to stick around 3½ years of age?  It’s a social reason rather than a neural one.  Research now states memory forming is clearly related to the free flowing “story” that a parent creates while raising a child.  Even if a child can’t keep up a conversation, “highly elaborative” mothers and fathers help a child create memories by using parenting narratives.

It’s In The Story

Psychologists studying the interchanges between parents and children note that parents often ask a child repetitive questions about a past event—or they recount the event in detail asking the child questions and incorporating the child’s answers into the telling of the event—or story.

Day writes: When children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections…The word story is important here.  Children are learning how to organize memories in a narrative…” And  Robyn Fivush, another psychology professor at Emory, states that more organized memories are better retained.

Memory in Story

My father died of a heart attack when I was 3 years and 3 months old.  I don’t have any memories of him.  I believe I have a memory of the night he died—lots of people in my quiet house.  But maybe that memory is part of the story my mother told me over the years.  And maybe I don’t remember my father because of the pain of losing him.  But I have lots of memories of how I coped with his loss by singing and swinging on a swing in our backyard.

One person commenting on Nicholas Day’s article states he can remember being in the womb.  I truly find that hard to believe, yet maybe his mother created a story about that experience or asked him questions and helped create a memory.

Writing, narrative relies heavily on memory and every story we read or write can be tested against the exact truth or possibly our faulty memory of it.  Like the following from a piece I wrote:

In a corner of the living room by the bookshelves a dingy red fabric chair sits in a stream of sunlight.  I gently touch it.  When I was a child, my brothers and I would climb on the wide arm and jump off, landing on the rug, hugging our bodies, knees to chest, and then roll down the living room floor.  My father died in that chair in June of 1950.

A Poet’s Thoughts on Memory

Poet David Whyte says that we can live the past, present and future all at once.  He says we have no choice in the matter!  If you’ve got a wonderful memory of your childhood, it should live within you.  If you’ve got a challenging relationship with a parent, that should be there as part of your identity now, both in your strengths and weaknesses.  The way we anticipate the future forms our identity now…We are never one thing; we are a conversation—everything we have been, everything we are now and every possibility we could be in the future. 

Talk to your young grandchildren; help them form positive narratives about their lives and thus positive memories.  Share your own amazing memories with your children and grandchildren.  Note that your relationship with your children and grandchildren becomes part of their story and memory.  Make it the best, giving and positive, as their childhood memories are part of your parental stories.

For more details read I REMEMBER MAMA AND DADA by Nicholas Day in Slate

Early Childhood Memories Related to Parental Stories

Permanent memories start to form after age 3. Parental stories help.

12 thoughts on “Early Childhood Memories Related to Parental Stories

  1. Hi Beth…..Since we shared the same household, we hold many of the same memories. I can remember “Daddy’s chair” and how we played on, around, over, and with it. And each of us hold a different memory of him. Mine blurred, as I was three months when he left us, but none the less those stories and anecdotes that Mom instilled in us, are there even today. So in that sense, my memory was formulated by those around me. But as the years have passed, my own imagination has created this man who gave me life, and has been watching over me all of these years……an interesting commentary on what you say here in Boomer Highway. But I feel Dad everyday in many ways……..and always will.

    • I certainly agree with the watching over me part. Loss of a parent can have some amazing effects on one’s link to the spiritual life. As for memories, mine certainly start to form after 3 years old and after his death. And if any one was blessed with a “highly elaborative parent” who could help us learn the narrative of our lives, it was our amazing mother. I also like the idea that we live our past into the present and future, so that what we can’t specifically remember, and in our case our father’s love, has still helped make us who we are. Beth

  2. It’s an interesting article Beth. I’ve always wondered about my childhood memories because they are still vivid to this day but I often wonder how accurate or real they are. The first memory I have is being carried by my mother in her arms outdoors. She handed me to someone, perhaps a relative but I cried and resisted being held by her; I don’t remember any emotion. As I’ve aged it seems that the times that carry the greatest emotion are the ones I remember clearly. For instance, of all the concerts I’ve seen I can still remember seeing James Taylor at Carnegie Hall in 1971. The emotional impact of that concert was through the roof. (Of course it helped that Carol King showed up unannounced to play piano and do a couple of songs). What do you think about this connection between emotion and memory?

  3. Your idea certainly would work in my case with my father’s death. Emotion was swirling around me and affecting me, so I do remember being lonely and alone on that swing. I also think I remember my older brother crying really hard that day. I think we remember exact details of weddings and funerals because of emotion. I was scared to be a flower girl in Ohio for my cousin’s wedding. I was 5 and have very clear memories. Same with the surgery I had on my eye at five. Fear and loneliness. It’s like it was yesterday. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Emotion seems to play a large role in my memories. I was tormented very badly as a child. I grew up with Type 1 Diabetes, which in the late 70’s/early 80’s NO ONE had, NO ONE had barely heard of it… and boy did the kids pick on me. Everyday, every lunch, every snack, every low or high bloodsugar… and as they made fun of me for the diabetes, it then parlayed into other cruel things, my hair, my clothes, my looks, my father’s nose, the way I walked…anything and everything became a reason for just about every kid to tease me, trip me, knock books out of my hand, steal my lunch, my hat, my gloves, my gym shoes even!
    This went on for 12 wonderful years, all through grade school, Jr. high and high school…it became worse as I became older. To this day, I still cannot walk into a crowded room without thinking everyone there is going to start throwing spit balls at me or start laughing and pointing as I flee…
    Of course, as an adult, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to walk thru crowded cafeterias and hallways…but it is. The memories I have from childhood are so deep and profound and the pain and HUMILIATION I felt back then still resides within me. It’s not as bad as when I was younger and I can walk into large groups of people IF I HAVE TOO but my stomach still flutters and my hands shake. I don’t do it often. I revolve my day around ‘off’ times- eating lunch at 1:15pm, when the cafe is quieter as opposed to high noon, when it’s filled with people.
    Certain memories in life just become so ingrained in your soul that nothing will take them away. You learn to cope with them and move forward but you know in your heart they will always be there.

  5. Natalie, thanks for your very honest relating of memories that have hurt and plagued you. I know that as a mother, you are creating a “story” for your daughter that will protect her from crippling experience, give her strength and in the end create good memories for her. Again, this goes back to parenting and in your case, your parents were probably overcome with the diagnosis, had other children too, and didn’t quite know how to help you–especially when you were out on your own–like at school. I urge all parents and grandparents to talk–truly talk to their children so they know, as best they can, what is happening in a life and how to help. Thanks, Beth

  6. My parents had so many worries…5 children, 2 diabetics, 2 asthmatics, the economy of the 1980’s, an infant death… they did everything they could for us, for our health and well being…but they couldn’t protect from the pain I suffered at school. I’m not sure they even understood how bad it was, I don’t think I understood it. How do you tell a child people make fun of her because she has an illness? They hugged me and loved me as best they could. I always knew when I went home it would be okay and it was. I teach my daughter to be confident and stand up for herself, to not be afraid to fight back if people are picking on her. I was always afraid to stand up and say “STOP”… I give her all the love, I can and together me and her father encourage her to be brave, strong and love herself. I hope she has better school memories than I do. My childhood wasn’t all bad memories, I do have some wonderful ones of my family and growing up in a loving home!

    • Homes are the fortress that prepare us for the world. That’s what you give your daughter every day. Sometimes children are unable to share the bullying, but if they can, often a parent can provide the tools to help them deal with it. You are doing that for your daughter. Thanks again.

  7. Beth- This is an interesting podcast from Radiolab.org on memory and forgetting.

    http://www.radiolab.org/2007/jun/07/
    -“Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process–it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added. And Oliver Sacks joins us to tell the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.”

    Give it a listen, it’s very interesting to learn that most of what we remember is actually fabricated from our own imaginations.

    Also, do a search on ‘flashbulb memory’ a memory phenomenon in which we remember more details of a situation based on the emotional intensity experienced within the actual moment. Studies continue question the accuracy of these types of memories, but still, an interesting thought to entertain!

    • Thanks, Amy. I am particularly interested in the flashbulb memory concept as that would apply to my memories of losing my dad–tons of emotion connected to those memories. I do believe that things we think we remember are actually stories we have heard over time about our lives. In some way frightening as parents or elders could change your memories or try to readjust bad ones. On some levels we are all vulnerable. Beth

  8. There was an interesting question on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks about memory. The neuroscientist suggested that each time we take out the memory, it changes. The final comment was quite funny – “So, that fish really does get bigger!”

    One more thought about memory – by weaving a positive memory cache, you’ll provide the child with material for future “stress undressing”. By recalling a pleasant memory, then how you felt at the time, you can, with some techniques, change the put a stop to the chemical cascade that occurs during times of stress.

    I enjoyed this article, Beth. Thank you.

  9. Now I like the positive spin on the positive memory cache. The stress undressing part. And I think psychologists probably need to do this to soothe people who have had huge trauma in early life to deal with. That brings us back to Manhattan Beach and the child abuse situation there in the 80s or 90s. I haven’t read legitimate research on this event, but I know that children were in some ways led in the wrong direction when they testified. Again, we are vulnerable in the memory department. Thanks for your comment, Beth

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