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How we reminisce affects our kids’ narratives Aug 4, 2017

Interestingly, research into the way kids remember shows us that the way parents reminisce affects their child’s memory. Heather Turgeon notes that in the preschool years, children start to be able to put together narratives – thinking about the world in terms of who, what, when, where and how all these things fit together, which bodes well for memory’s staying power.

Research suggests that if parents put together a story and make connections between things as opposed to asking repetitive questions that don’t involve much detail, memories can find their home in a child’s mind. 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 “What did we see? Yes a dog? And what else did we see?”

I remember giving my 2 year old (23 years ago!) a small photo book which she would carry around with her, giving plenty of opportunity to discuss what was in each photo.

Unconscious memory

Lise Elliot in her book What’s going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life states that once a child starts to talk, in the middle of the second year, long-term memory gets a big boost. Language comes around the time kids develop self-awareness and start to understand how events fit together. Before this, experiences happen, but there is nowhere to slot them, so they’re less likely to be rehearsed, making most of it unconscious memory. These implicit memories impact on more than just motor skills. These “lower brain regions cosy up to our feeling centres too, so kids learn emotional patterns way before they become conscious beings.”

Which memories stick?

Neuroscientist Rick Hanson explains that we can take positive steps to determine which memories stick with our kids. Unfortunately, we can sometimes remember bad things while forgetting the good ones. According to Hanson, our mind acts “like Teflon for positive” memories and “Velcro for negative ones.”  This is not good for our happiness: If most of our memories are negative, we come to perceive the world as depressing, even threatening.

Fortunately, Hanson in his book The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom gives us some positive steps to determine which memories stick with our kids. Blogger Christine Carter shared how she applied these steps with her kids each night:

  1. Teach kids to notice the good things that are all around them. Practice actively looking for the positive: Those flowers we planted are blooming; our neighbour was so nice to help us with a difficult project; school was particularly fun today. The key, according to Hanson, is to “turn positive facts into positive experiences.”
  2. Draw out—really savour—those positive experiences. The idea is not just to hold something positive in our awareness for as long as possible, but also to remember the positive emotions that go along with them.  Now my kids list something that is good about their day, like that they had fun with their friends, and we really think about how good it felt to be playing and enjoying friendship.  This evokes what was rewarding about a “good thing,” and helps use our brain chemistry to strengthen connections associated with the memory.
  3. Let it all sink in. Have your kids imagine that the good thing you were just talking about “is entering deeply into [their] mind and body, like the sun’s warmth into a T-shirt, water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart.”

Foster and focus on positive experiences

Researchers have found that it isn’t until preschool and beyond that memories have a chance of becoming permanent. And even then, memories aren’t likely to stick unless they are repeated or have a big emotional impact. So the earlier years, when unconscious memories are being formed, is a crucial time in life because this is when we learn that the world is a good place. We can then build on this by helping our kids to remember special things and to think about the values that matter to you and them, while they are in their formative years. While we can’t prevent and shouldn’t try to prevent the challenges our kids sometimes face, we can try to offset them by fostering positive experiences and focusing more on them.

(Photo courtesy of


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