Very young children do not know who they are. They learn about themselves from those who care for them—those who narrate their days for them, who describe their likes and dislikes, who tell them what makes them laugh and what makes them cry.
Parents hold children’s memories for them until they can hold them for themselves. Remembering is a learned skill and, like other skills, takes time and practice. Research about how children’s memories are created, retained, and retrieved underscores the importance of social interactions in building the capacity to remember.
A recent Wall Street Journal discussed three specific and different ways that childhood memories promote emotional well-being. Some memories help to direct our behavior, i.e., they help us learn from our mistakes and profit from our successes. Children who remember the pleasure of doing well on a test after making the time to study can draw on that memory to improve study habits.
Other memories promote social relationships. Individually or with others we remember shared experiences. Social bonds can be strengthened by recall as well as by interpersonal interaction. Repeating pleasurable activities that we once shared with family and friends also helps to bring those people to mind. Reading a bedtime story to a child may bring to a father’s mind being read to by his father.
Still other memories establish a sense of self, beginning with the memories that parents and caretakers keep and give to very young children.“ Today we’re going to the same park we went to yesterday,” fixes children’s activities in time and space.
Parents who help children remember and talk about their activities are teaching them the art of storytelling. They learn how to talk to others about who they are and how the important people and events in their lives fit together. Children and adults draw on memories to help maintain a sense of continuity of self. We can look back and see the ways in which we were the same over time and the ways in which certain events or experiences changed us in some way.
These studies consider the development of children’s memories in the context of the parent child relationship. They do not examine the fate of memory when there is no consistent parent or caregiver to hold the child’s memories. When children move from home to home, as foster children do, it is not only clothes and toys that are sometimes left behind, but memories and fragments of experience that never get stored as cohesive, retrievable memories. This loss is one of the more subtle, but crucial, factors that undermine the sense of well being of children who grow up in foster care. “Memory books,” holding stories and pictures for children as they move from one home to another, are an attempt to rectify this loss, but they are not an adequate substitute for a parent who keeps the memories of a child’s history in mind.