We hosted a big party at our house not long ago, and our two-year-old got stuck in his closet for longer than I care to admit. A friend of ours eventually heard him calling, rescued him, and brought him to me.
Feelings of guilt, concern, and relief washed over me, as I played out increasingly dramatic "what if" scenarios in my head. I cuddled him on my lap, but he quickly perked up, anxious to wiggle away and rejoin the party.
We adults laughed off the incident, adding it to the list of near misses we'd already encountered that day. Hosting a party for 17 children with a median age of two is a battle against chaos. I wondered aloud jokingly, "I hope this didn't scar him for life," and my husband and I made a mental note to close off the bedrooms for the next party.
Then, I wondered privately, when do kids really form lasting memories, and what promotes certain situations to memory status over others? Basically, how much leeway do I have before I inadvertently pack an extra duffel of baggage for my kid to carry around through life?
Most of us don't remember anything that happened before we turned three or four years old, and, even then, we only retain a handful of episodic memories. While infants and toddlers can and do form memories, they fade over time, replaced with newer "first" memories until the child is somewhere between seven and 10 years old.
At this point, early memories begin to crystallize. Researchers refer to this cycle of remember and delete as childhood amnesia. There are a lot of nuances to how it's defined and studied, but for our purposes, just know that its occurrence is completely normal and likely a side effect of the typical brain development that children undergo.
This is good news for me. While my husband and I have certainly disqualified ourselves from being named Parents of the Year, it's a safe bet that my son won't remember being stuck in that dark closet by himself. However, we can't know this for sure, since some of these early memories do manage to become lasting "first" recollections.
For children to retain memories for the long haul, the memory typically begins with a significant personal event, like the birth of a younger sibling, a special holiday, an injury, or a trauma. As parents, we hope that we're creating lots of positive experiences to increase the odds that one of those will outlast a more stressful situation, like, say, an extended stay in a darkened closet. We can't be sure what experiences children are more likely to retain, though, due to the other contributing factor of memory retention: coherence.
For a memory to be meaningful, context matters. Children have to understand concepts within the situation, so that the details of the event can stick together in a coherent way, forming a more complete story that's easy to replay.
A friend of mine told me about her brother's first memory: His biological mother left him at an orphanage when he was two years old. It breaks my heart to think about the significance of this moment in his life. He most definitely understood the concept of "mother" and "leaving." The resulting confusion, sadness, and stress made this memory, unfortunately, an unforgettable one.
It puts in perspective the minor mishap my son experienced and confirms that it probably won't be incorporated into his permanent psyche. He's young, and I suspect he assigned minimum negative emotion to it since he wanted to go play in his closet the very next day. If he does remember being stuck in there, it's because his older sister, his father, and I construct the memory for him by retelling it as part of family lore.
Conversations like this are how parents can have the greatest effect on our children's memories and how we can help them develop earlier and more robust ones. While there's much we still have to learn about how memories work, research suggests that kids who talk about themselves more frequently have the opportunity to sharpen their memory skills.
As parents, we can ask our kids to elaborate on personal experiences with open-ended questions like, "Tell me more," and "What happened next?" This gives children the chance to better understand the feelings and concepts associated with an event, boosts the likelihood they'll remember it, and, hopefully, increases the chance that their first memory will be a happy one.