Childhood memories

Childhood memories
All parents want to create happy childhood memories for their children. But what makes some memories stick while others eventually fade?

All parents want to create happy childhood memories for their children. But what makes some memories stick while others eventually fade?

Five-year-old Luiza visited her mom’s side of the family in Morocco when she was 3. She spent no more than a few hours with her grandpa, but she can tell you all about what they did. “She remembers him giving her candy and cookies and the two of them playing a game together,” says her mom, Maria.

Luiza also recalls being shoved on the school bus two years ago. “She has no recollection of the day camp she went to, but she still talks about what happened on the bus!” Maria says, shaking her head.

When children experience something unusual or emotional, it tends to stay in their memories longer. This is what happened with Luiza, and the same can be said about 4year-old Émile, who saw a show featuring a pirate a year ago. “He got so excited and hasn’t stopped talking about it since,” says his mom, Elizabeth.

Keep in mind that what you consider memorable won’t always have the same impact on your child. Take the birth of a little brother or sister, for example. “Parents just assume their children will remember a big event like that,” says Geneviève Cadoret, a professor at UQAM whose research focuses on memory. “But that’s not always what happens. They might have stronger feelings about a special trip to the park!”

At other times, children will forget everything about an activity apart from one seemingly trivial detail. For instance, Émile’s parents took their son to the museum when he was 2 years old. “We saw a dog as we were leaving, and that was all he would talk about for days,” says his mom, laughing.

Naturally, children have an easier time remembering things that interest them. But their inability to retain much about any given activity also has to do with their brains being at a developmental stage, explains Sarah Lippé, a neuropsychologist and professor at the Université de Montréal. “Getting the full picture requires processing a lot of information at once—more than what a young brain is ready to handle,” she says.

Childhood amnesia

Most adults can trace their earliest memories back to when they were 3 or 4 years old. Everything before then remains a blur. This is known as childhood amnesia. Although babies are capable of forming memories by the age of 8 months, children often have no recollection of their first birthday party—or, for that matter, anything that happened before they turned 2. Memories from these early years are quickly forgotten, including those formed before age 3.

Toddlers need to forget some of their memories to make space for learning new things.

Although science has solved much of the mystery surrounding this phenomenon, many questions remain. In children under the age of 2, the part of the brain called the hippocampus is not yet mature enough to properly store and recall memories. Moreover, the brain is busy replacing neurons with new and improved ones.

“The purpose of these new neurons is to accommodate the child’s new knowledge,” explains Marion Noulhiane, a neuroscience researcher at the NeuroSpin research centre in France. “To make room for what a child needs to learn, the brain has to get rid of information that’s no longer useful. That explains why certain memories disappear.”

Childhood amnesia is also due in part to the fact that toddlers are still learning to speak. It’s easier to remember events after talking about them, but children who haven’t yet mastered language are unable to share their memories.

Do past experiences, even those that have been forgotten, affect a child later on in life? Possibly. “If a child is mistreated, certain parts of the brain can retain traces of the emotions he felt,” Noulhiane says. “Even if the child no longer remembers what happened, it can affect his personality and behaviour.”

Helping your child remember

Elizabeth often talks to her son Émile about her favourite moments with him. This is a great idea! While you may not be able to pick and choose what your child remembers, you can still have an influence.

The better children sleep, the better they retain new information.

By routinely talking to your child about what you’ve done together and encouraging her to share things from her point of view, you’re helping her mentally relive events and become better at structuring stories. According to Cadoret, this increases the chances of your little one remembering her experiences longer. It’s a more effective approach than simply asking questions to get your child to talk on her own.

As for photos, the camera can lead to false memories. As Noulhiane notes, “It’s hard to tell the difference between something you experienced and actually remember from when you were 2 and something that you know only from photos.”


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, October 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab, Université de Montréal and Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre


Photos: Maxim Morin (top) and GettyImages/Sidekick (bottom)