Capturing Memory

Dec 27, 2013

Stars glittered in the mother’s eyes as she described her family’s recent drive west through the Rockies.  They stood in wonder at the foot of beautiful waterfalls.  They marveled at the girth and height of some enormous trees.  They thrilled at their quick glances of shy moose and elk.

Mom and Dad are convinced they’ll never forget this experience, but they have a concern.  The youngest member of this journeying family is only three. How will she ever remember the experience?

This issue affects most every family as we build a shared view of the world through memories we can recall together.  Studies of memory indicate babies begin to organize and process information in a way that creates memories by two years of age.  As preschoolers gain language skills, they store memories in the part of the brain that describes those experiences with words which may be recalled.

Between the ages of ten and thirteen, many earlier recollections are replaced by newer, more permanent memories.  At that point, details may change in a way that is encoded for all time.

How can parents address this vulnerability of memory?  How can we capture experiences for our children that will withstand the challenges of time and brain reorganization?

On this question, the studies have some clear findings.  Parents who repeat the narrative of family stories embed them into their children’s memories beyond what would be expected.   “Highly elaborative” parents include lots of descriptive details—and ask their kids questions—about shared people and celebrations they want their kids to remember.  These details give kids’ memories something to attach to as their neurons fire on those established synaptic pathways.

Lots of families also document such experiences with photographs.  While many now store these photos electronically, printing some out for physical display gives young children a chance to peruse them again and again.  Scrapbooks provide a visual stimulus to help kids hold onto those memories.

Recognizing their opportunity, parents can be intentional about sharing stories and photos of experiences they don’t want their kids to forget.  After all, our shared family history is too precious to lose.