My wife says she remembers nothing from her childhood, or at least nothing before the age of seven. I, on the other hand, have memories of being about two years old and climbing out of my crib and finding parents and relatives drinking out of cocktail glasses. Still, unless the experience is a traumatic one, most adults think that children under a certain age don’t retain any real accessible memories into adulthood until maybe the age of five. I have even heard some parents say with practiced dismissal, “Don’t worry about it, she won’t remember any of this in a year.” While this notion, both tragic and convenient, seems to be the status quo, it is now being rightly disputed.
While it would be fair to assume that children don’t remember much from their early childhood because we, as adults, remember just random fragments, and nothing really tangible about those first four or five years. And then there were those famous object permanence experiments that child development theorist Jean Piaget conducted on babies. You know the ones where a desirable object was removed or covered up and the babies seemingly forgot all about the ball or toy. The idea gleaned from those experiments was that young children lived in the perpetual present (not like us adults that are either haunted by our pasts or worrying about the future). But according to a Slate article by Nicholas Day, even the youngest of infants are aware of the past and retain memories far longer than originally thought. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even six-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.
So this idea of babies living only for the here and now is flawed at best, as very young children (two and younger) have memory functions very similar to adults. While far less developed than the memories of adults and even teens, babies are developing neural structures crucial for developing tangible memories.
But the true takeaway from the information cited in the Slate article is that the more parents talk about the past, in a highly elaborate way, the more children begin to develop a context for their own memories and stories. Children begin to tell stories—to process their experience—in richer, more detailed ways. Basically, children who are witness to adults talking about the past in detailed and elaborate ways will develop more ample and substantive memories.
Have you witnessed impressive feats of memory in your own children? Do you have substantial memories of your own left over from childhood, and if so, what do you think helped you retain them?