How many times have you joked, after your child bumps his head or after you forget to pick up the treat you promised him, "At least he won't ever remember this"? I've said it so many times I can't count. When D. couldn't go with his Bapu on the airplane back to Michigan and he screamed bloody murder; when S. became cognizant that he was sometimes being left at home when I would take D. to the park, and he would (note the theme) scream bloody murder; when littlest S. got her first shots and...that's right...screamed bloody murder. "At least they'll never remember this."
But when do they start remembering? I just read this amazing article on just that question--about how a child's memory works, and the evolution of a newborn's brain.
Reconfirming what many of us already thought, the article spells out that, until 3, kids are really only capable of short-term memory. This is, in part, heartbreaking. Some of us have gone to great lengths to do things like take our infants to India so that they know where they come from; some of us have lost parents and our children will never know these grandparents. And even putting that sort of grandeur to the side--we all do quite a bit of living in those first three years, from first trips to the playground to first days at school. But, for the most part, there is no getting around the fact that children are not wired to store these sorts of memories. Plan the elaborate 1st birthday party with Swarovski crystals on the cake if you want--but don't expect Junior to remember it.
Except: It is not quite that easy. For instance, according to the article, if you teach your 2 year old how to hit a tennis ball he may remember that for the rest of his life. And, while your kids might not remember the hours you and your mom slaved away baking almond cookies for their daycare with them, it is possible that, years later they will have "warm feelings" towards almond cookies. (Think Proust and those blasted Madelaines that made him wrote sooooo many words...!) As the article puts it: "The brain has more than one record button."
For the over-achievers amongst us ("My son can remember everything from when he was sixteen months old"...spoken in an Indian Auntie accent of course...!): Researchers have found that the way parents reminisce affects their kid's memory. For instance, a child's memory will be stronger if you "help her put together a story and make connections between things (for example, "Remember what we saw at the park last week? Yes, a dog! And what was the dog doing? He barked loud and you started to laugh!"). As opposed to asking repetitive questions that don't involve much detail ("What did we see? Yes, a dog! And what else did we see?"). When parents flesh out a story, rather than just go after simple facts, memories can find their home in a child's mind.
Add to the to-do list: Make connections about things with the kids...
But, take heart, even if you don't get to that action item, chances are that all is not for naught. As the article explains:
[T]he unconscious memories that [children] form right from the start may be the most important ones. These are the emotional patterns that we learn — that we are safe, that when mom picks us up we feel happy, or that when we knock over a tower of blocks and turn to look at dad, he will be smiling back at us. This is why many people say that the first few years of life are the most important — because way in the back of our brains is where we learn (unconsciously) that the world is a good place.
Which makes sense, and is a relief. Our hard work is for something. So remember to smile warmly...even when your kids are screaming bloody murder...