A Claptrap Memory, but for How Long?

NPR aired an interesting piece this week about new research on childhood memories — why we remember what we remember about childhood, and why we forget so much as we get older. “Childhood amnesia” is actually a thing — most adults don’t remember much from their earliest years, say, before age 3. I know I don’t.


I have a terrible memory in general, short-term and long-term. I can’t remember four things to pick up at the store without a written list, and I can’t remember how I met most of my friends. I’ve tried to figure out what my earlier childhood memory is, but I’ve never really been able come up with it. And then you have to ask yourself what’s really a memory, and what’s a story your parents told you, maybe backed up by a photograph?


Nora, on the other hand, at age 4 remembers everything. The other day, as we walked the dog through the neighborhood, she casually pointed out a spot — an exact spot — on the road where she fell and skinned her knees when she was tiny. I can’t remember (of course I can’t!) how old she was exactly, but I do know she was just really getting the hang of walking, so she was definitely well shy of her second birthday, maybe 15-18 months old. She’ll randomly recite passages from books we borrowed from the library more than a year ago, and she remembers in great detail the time two years ago when our dog ate Daddy’s birthday cake (now THAT one I haven’t forgotten either).


One day, of course, she’ll forget most of that. It’s easy to be sad about that, to heave a sigh over her losing moments of her childhood, good and bad. But it’s comforting to think of it as a function of growing up and having those old memories replaced by new — and hopefully positive — ones. That’s not exactly how the science works, I know. But just let me have that, OK?


The good news is that studies have found that parents play a big role in what kids remember, not surprisingly. When parents can fill in the gaps of a child’s vague impression or extrapolate from what they’re seeing in a photo, those memories tend to stick. Think of all the stories your family tells over and over again about the time you did … whatever. Sure, a lot of the images and emotions that pop into your brain are what have sprouted there because of the storytelling, but you can tell when there’s a spark of firsthand recognition there. Maybe you don’t remember every second of that family trip to the beach, but you sure do remember when your toe got pinched by a crab, or when you got to peel your own shrimp at dinner.

So we probably won’t be rehashing that first skinned knee incident — it was traumatic for all of us. But I hope to do my best to make my poor memory hold onto some of the highlights, so I can keep them alive in Nora’s brain, which hopefully has much more storage capacity than mine in her childhood and beyond.