It’s early summer, and my 1-year-old daughter and I are standing in our sunny kitchen, dancing to the cheerful pop song on the radio and eating fresh blueberries. She’s beaming at me with her little berry-stained mouth because this is her perfect Saturday morning: in her home, with her favorite food, and — I like to believe, at least — her favorite person.
I re-create this scene for her as often as I can, my attempt to make her childhood as simple and as happy as it can be. I also know, though, that soon enough, she won’t remember any of it. We could do this every Saturday for the next year, and of the two of us, only I would know it ever happened. It’s a strangely lonely feeling.
* * *
During our first years, autobiographical memories — memories about our own lives — either aren’t formed, or are formed in such a way that recall eventually becomes impossible. Most people don’t remember anything from before age 3 or 4; at that point, the number of memories we retain gradually increases until it reaches an adult level around age 7.
Patricia Bauer, a psychology professor at Emory University, compares those fleeting earliest memories to tiny grains of orzo pasta in a strainer. When the key brain structures involved in memory storage are at their most immature, “it’s like using a colander with big holes in it,” Bauer explains. “When you dump orzo into a colander with big holes in it, a lot of the orzo goes right out the holes. Kids have hole-y colanders … So they have less information that they’re encoding, and the information that they have is more vulnerable to forgetting.” But as the number of memories increases over time, the loss of those memories also slows down.
Researchers have developed clever methods for testing memory formation and retention in children too young to describe what they recall. In one study scenario, for example, 3- and 4-year-olds are individually taken from a laboratory outside to a sandbox, where they’re told a treasure chest has been buried by a pirate. After digging it up, the child finds that the chest is locked, and is asked by the adult if they have a key. The child says no, and is then taken back inside. A day later, the child returns to the lab and is told they’re going back outside to the sandbox. Before leaving, they are given the choice of one of three objects to bring with them: a ball, a key, or a wind-up toy. Four-year-olds will correctly choose the key 75 percent of the time, whereas a 3-year-old will typically choose an object at random.
The question, then: Did the 3-year-olds not form a memory of the treasure box, or did they form one and then lose it? When the researchers shortened the time between sessions to less than 30 minutes, as opposed to a full day, the younger participants chose the key significantly more often — suggesting that while they were forming memories, they just weren’t keeping them for very long. The 4-year-olds, by contrast, still chose correctly after one week.
Even many of the memories that a school-age child has won’t stay with them in the long run. In one study co-authored by Bauer, 3-year-old children were asked to talk about their earliest memories. If those children were questioned again between the ages of 5 and 7, they were able to recall at least 60 percent of the events they’d described in their first interview. But for those who were questioned instead at the age of 8 or 9, that number dropped to less than 40 percent.
Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, puts it this way: “The farther in the past from age 7, the more likely [childhood memories] are to be forgotten.” By contrast, our rate of memory retention stays more or less constant throughout most of adulthood: Research has found that we have very similar distributions of memories at age 70 compared to age 20. Once we clear the initial hurdle of our earliest, memory-swallowing days, the things we remember from childhood will probably be with us for the rest of our lives.
* * *
When my daughter is two and a half, she and I, along with my husband, move from our tiny city apartment to a two-story home in a small town. She will never remember that we lived in the city. That we all slept in the same bed and spent our evenings in the same room and were practically never out of each other’s sight so long as we were all home.
As the early months in our new house go by, I sometimes think of the sandbox test, and wonder if her memories of our old life have evaporated yet. But when we drive by the brick schoolhouse that housed her day care before our move, she points and says “friends” in a way that makes my heart break a little. She still knows she once had friends there. Most of the time, I hope that she’ll hold on to her recollections of our old life for as long as possible — but in that moment, I want them gone, forgetfulness erasing the first real experience of loss in her short life.
In a way, this perennial tabula rasa is what makes parenthood such a self-sacrificing enterprise. For years, you put your heart and soul into doing the best for people who will quite literally never remember it. Books and movies have contrived complex plots around good people doing good things for those who will never know it, and yet here it is in real life, so much more mundane than any Hollywood drama.
It’s comforting to remind myself that while the memories themselves seep away, a sort of high-water mark remains, a ghost of happy times that helps shape who my daughter will become. The extra effort does leave something behind.
* * *
My own mother died when I was just shy of 5 years old. My memories of her amount to very little — only a couple of brief vignettes, and a small piece of conversation so lacking in profundity that I cringe a bit when I think of it. In this snippet, I’m probably about 3 years old, and it’s bath time. She washes first my face, and then my bottom, with the same washcloth. I tell her that’s gross. She laughs and asks if I’d rather she did it the other way around. This is the only memory I have of my mother speaking to me.
One of the most abruptly painful moments of my life was suddenly realizing around the age of 8 that I had forgotten what her voice even sounded like. The memory just snuck away at some point when I wasn’t paying attention, and it’s never come back. I retain the script for our little washcloth conversation, but the soundtrack is missing.
I’m haunted by the thought that if I vanished right now, my child would remember nothing of me. Or that I could spend several more devoted years and still leave her with only recollections of dumb toilet humor. Retaining memories is one thing, but how long does it take before she remembers something beautiful or poignant? The apparent randomness of it scares me.
* * *
There are things that I can do, though, to tip the odds in my favor. Research has shown that a parent’s use of language can influence a child’s memories: When children are helped, through discussion, to make a coherent narrative out of something that has recently happened to them, they’re more likely to remember it down the road.
“If you look at the way parents talk with their children,” Bauer says, “you can identify two different approaches or styles. There’s one style where the parent really is drawing the child into the conversation and following the child’s lead. The parent is suggesting topics and when the child responds with something, the parent follows that child’s lead.” This is what researchers refer to as a “high elaborative” style. “And what the parent will also frequently do, [is] comment that the child enjoyed the event, or was afraid or got angry. The parent will kind of label the emotion, so that it’s giving the child a personal perspective on the event,” which in turn helps to solidify the memory.
In a “low elaborative” style, on the other hand, “you see parents who are approaching these memory conversations more as a memory test,” Bauer says. “It’s like the parent has an idea of what they want the child to say, and keeps posing a question until the kid volunteers the information or just stops the conversation.”
We also know that culture can play a strong role in how parents speak to their children and, subsequently, how much children remember of their early days. In a 2009 study, Peterson, together with Qi Wang of Cornell University and Yubo Hou of Peking University, examined the role of early communication styles in how well children later remembered events, comparing Chinese and European Canadian children in their ability to recall very early memories. The Canadian children were consistently found to have both earlier and more memories than their Chinese counterparts, a finding that the authors attribute to cultural differences in how parents talk to their young children about the daily occurrences of their lives. “In our cultural background, we tend to talk about those events with children over and over,” Peterson says. “You are teaching the child that it’s a good thing to remember your past.” But in the less individualistic Chinese culture, “that’s not considered appropriate, because it places too much emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the child seeing themselves as part of a group.”
Studies on Maori children have found that their first memories, on average, are earlier than any other culture studied by as much as a year. The Maori people of New Zealand are known for their strong oral tradition and rich transmission of family history from one generation to the next; Maori mothers, while not significantly more elaborative than North American mothers, do place a greater emphasis on the order in which events happened, and how children felt about them. Giving this structure and personal meaning to memories may be what helps children hold on to them.
And across cultures, we can borrow from these practices. Bauer explains, “What we think is happening in the case of the high elaborative style is, the child really is internalizing how you talk about the past, and is also […] developing a personal perspective,” Bauer explains. “And it’s more than correlational … you can actually teach parents to use this more high elaborative style, and the children will start to show these changes in autobiographical reports. It’s pretty powerful.”
Knowing this gives me a measure of peace. Though it’s still a game of chance, I may be able to exert some influence on what my daughter remembers from her early life. If I tell her stories about a time when we danced and ate berries in the sunshine, and it made her happy, she may just be able to hold on to that.