This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.
Most of my memories from early childhood involve senses, not events. I remember the smell of the home where I went to day care and the way the juice tasted in the plastic cups. I recall the cheerful nightly sound of a spoon clanking against the inside of a glass as my father stirred his chocolate milk after I had gone to bed.
When I was 6, we took Amtrak from Montreal to New Orleans. I adored this trip and it made a big impression on me. Fifteen years later, at 21, my boyfriend asked if I had a preference as to where he should apply to graduate school, since I would be following him, and largely on the basis of that trip, I said New Orleans. We ended up living there for five extremely eventful years.
But I only actually remember two things from traveling to New Orleans as a kid: the pink translucent apple jelly that our hotel served at breakfast and an Amtrak porter handing me an Andes mint and smiling. All my other memories are incited by photographs. You might call the jelly and the mint my “core memories” from the trip. I love to eat, so it’s no surprise that they both involve food.
These memories have come back to me lately as I’ve watched a trend on parenting TikTok and Instagram in which parents claim to be “making core memories” for their kids. These captions typically accompany vacation or holiday content, or pictures and videos of kids playing in nature. The core-memories narrative is a roundabout way for parents to congratulate themselves for giving their children happy childhoods.
This trend has held my attention because it strikes me as both openly corny and subtly malignant — an enchanting combination that makes for the most reliably engaging parenting content. Today’s parents are famous for their instincts to control and engineer outcomes for their children, but it’s supremely hubristic to assume that you can stage-manage the content of your children’s memories. Child psychologists are constantly reminding us that the world of kids is, and should be, separate from the world of adults. Kids are mysterious, which is part of what makes them cool. What’s important to them is not what’s important to us. (I highly doubt either of my parents noticed the apple jelly that transfixed me in New Orleans.) Presuming to know what experiences will be most formative for your children, and then taking the next step and boasting about that presumption to everyone you know, is a new level of buy-in to the charade of happy-family cosplay on social media.
There’s a malignancy to the way parents crowing about core memories appear to be mining their children for authentic emotion, which is a scarce resource on the platforms nowadays. It’s been years since adults behaved “authentically” on social media — a decade at least. As we’ve become accustomed to the norm of posting in a mannered and deliberate way, authentic behavior has become precious. We gravitate toward it as an emotional oasis in an online environment where the tone is set by algorithms.
This explains the enduring popularity of “big reveal” content like gender reveals, marriage proposals, and emotional reunions. Core-memory content is a recent addition to this genre. Parents share reels of their children learning that they’re going to Disney, zooming in on their shocked expressions as the news sinks in. They hide cameras in their living rooms to capture the Christmas-morning moment when their kids walk in and see all the gifts under the tree. People call these clips “priceless.” These unscripted, candid bits of content are prized for exhibiting unimpeachable proof of happy kids, thriving despite a difficult and precarious world.
I don’t doubt that most of this content does represent authentic cheerfulness, but I would also suggest that it’s media exactly like this that has taught kids how they are expected to behave when they’re given a surprise. Kids may have their own walled gardens of memory that adults can’t access, but they’re also relentless anthropologists of adult behavior, and there exists today what the theorist Michel Foucault might have called a “dispositif of social media affect” that children — girls especially — begin acquiring through osmosis from a very young age. Certain faces are made, phrases are uttered. Children are pros at make-believe.
The concept of core memories came to pop-cultural prominence because of the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out, in which the main character’s emotions appear as color-coded orbs. On social media, it seems to be used as a hybrid with the biological concept of imprinting, which describes how early and frequent exposure to certain experiences can teach children behaviors that can last a lifetime. A core memory of a fun trip to Disney, so the reasoning goes, could make for lifelong happiness. Core-memory talk is just another instance of TikTok therapyspeak gone rogue. But it also feels like a further embrace among online parents of an approach to family-life storytelling that is breathlessly, almost passive-aggressively corny.
Corniness tends to come from an honest place and this is no exception. Parents just want to make sure their kids are happy, and they are desperate to feel a sense of reassurance that, yes, they’re doing a good job. I suspect that core-memory content is a form of self-soothing. But I do wonder if the urge to rabidly protect our children from sadness is costing them something.
Most people, even atheists, believe that humans have something like a soul, and our private relationships with our own suffering and disappointment are what allow our souls to develop and grow throughout our lives. This maniacal focus on creating and documenting happy childhood memories, this insistent packaging of it, feels like the anxious smoothing down of a whole dimension of life. Sure, we should protect our children from suffering. But we should also protect their right to suffer.
Recently a clip has gone viral of the rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) talking about how Drake’s music is “compatible with shopping.” Imitating what it’s like to be a Drake fan, Bey remarks, in a guileless voice, “I love this mall! They have everything here!”
Some people have accused Bey of being a dusty rapper from a bygone “socially conscious” era grasping for something relevant to say about a world that’s left him behind. Maybe it’s because I’m old too, but I thought his remarks were dead-on, and they made me think of core-memories posts. Embracing whatever cute trend people are trying out on social media is harmless for the most part. It doesn’t really hurt your kids and it doesn’t hurt you. But it belongs to a set of anesthetized behaviors that precludes us from developing much interiority when it comes to our lives and families. There has been a capitulation to this kind of blindfolded social-media storytelling that can feel close to complete. Not only do we love this mall, but our kids are learning to love this mall too.
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