How to mess with your kid’s memory 101

So after yesterday’s debacle, where I bared my soul and my chubby sequin-clad thighs by re-telling the horrendous memory that I’ve been tortured by for nearly 30 years… only to find out that something entirely different happened to what my brain told me, I figured maybe we could use it to our advantage and look at how we can mess with support our kid’s brains and get some more factual memories cracking.

My inner nerd is coming out here when I say the whole memory storage and retrieval stuff is pretty fascinating. The brain is this big mushy blob that does some freaky shit. The way it can encode information, chunk it, store it away for eons and then pop it back out when we’re triggered- it’s amazing when you think about it.

For a long time we had this assumption that kids don’t remember much. I mean heck, I’m lucky to remember my name most days, so recalling stuff when I was a little kid? Well that’s like asking me to go 9 months without wine. Oh wait…. I think I’ve repressed the last 9 months. That’s my brain trying to cope with another harrowing memory.

memories meme
Well if you put it in photo form.. then it sure will.

Things get pretty patchwork as we get older, but we all have those hazy visions of random events. Some might be really big moments, others might be just everyday bits of fuzz. I have this really distinct memory of a birthday party I had at home, and I got a toy supermarket for that birthday. In my memory it plays out like a silent movie- we’re all playing with the supermarket, but we were all dead quiet and not really chattering. I was 5 or 6. So the chances of us being silent are about as slim as Kanye West realising what a douchebag he is.

But it is so vivid! Why this memory sticks out is beyond me. It’s not like it was a life changing event. Or the best party I ever had. But it will still randomly pop up from time to time. Alongside my step tap horror, and my big eared first day of school.

What this means for us is that we can’t assume our kid’s aren’t filing shit away right now. Because they are. Often recall prior to the age of 2 is slim, but you bet your bottom dollar your 2 year old can actually retain and recall stuff. And for a lot longer than we give them credit for. By 3 ½ shit is getting real and they are retaining and making memories they can retrieve later.


It’s a bit of pressure, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but sometimes when things go wrong, or I’ve had my shouty pants on, one way I make myself feel better is saying “at least they won’t remember this”. Well… turns out they can. Dayum.

What if something big has happened for them? Like, say they got caught on stage in front of a crowd of people and forgot the steps to the dance they’d so carefully rehearsed? *not that I’m still holding onto this or anything* How can we help our munchkins overcome crappy memories?

Research has shown that the more we talk through moments with our kids, and the more elaborate we are in our descriptions, the more likely they are to have a rich memory of that event and retain it. So when it comes to things that don’t quite pan out, the trick is to reframe it for our kids and really be detailed in our reframing.

So if a child raises a memory, or asks a question about an event, try to help them really create a detailed story of what’s gone on. And if something went astray, highlight that even though it didn’t turn out as planned, they’re still moving forward and they coped.

The key is to make it a story for them. Children really see the world in a series of narratives. Well, that’s how I see it too; our lives are made up of a bunch of different stories that make us, us. Some great, some not so great. So when it comes to memories, we detail that story, and we balance it out. If it didn’t go so well, then we’ve learned from it, we coped, and it’s shaping us into who we are today.

memories ecard
How’s that for reframing? Boo-yah

Creating memory books are really helpful for kids too, in order for them to process events and move forward. Using pictures and words, creating a story on the pages, will really consolidate the memory and help them build on it.

We have to be careful not to deviate too far from the truth though. Because kids are like little sponges, they soak everything up- even sometimes if it’s not necessarily true. There has been a lot of research around false memories- that is, those memories that we think are real when they didn’t actually happen to us. One study actually found that children as young as 5 can have events suggestively planted in their heads, provided they’re plausible (see here if you want to read more) .

So while it might be fun to mess with them and say they used to believe they were a cat and would only eat from a cat bowl and talk in meows, they may encode it as a real memory and take it through their life. Unless it actually did happen and then you might need to bring your kid in to have a chat with me. I only say this as one of my dear friends did decide she was a cat for a year. Sat up in trees and hissed at people and all. Best.memory.ever.

Ok, so this has no relevance to this post whatsoever, but it’s what came up when I searched for childhood memories. WTF. Sleep tight kiddies… Image source

Before you hit the vino and try to hypnotise your kid to forget all the things you’ve said and done, don’t fret entirely just yet. There’s this neat thing called ‘childhood amnesia’ whereby all the early early stuff prior to the age of 3 seems to disappear. By the time a child is 7 they tend to forget those memories from early on in the piece. I call this a parent hall pass. Go to town until they’re 3, and then by the time they’re 7 they’ll forget again and you’ve got a clean slate. The full story about this phenomena can be found here.

Another neat little article about sorting out bad memories is right here.

What’s your earliest memory? Is it a big thing or a random fuzz? Have your kids freaked you out by recalling stuff you swore they’d never remember? My cherubs have memories like elephants. In that they’re big and clunky and awkward and plant a big shit right where you can step in it. It’s scary.

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  • i for one vote for childhood amnesia!! all this time i was sure i was the subject of their therapy appointments. maybe it’s not all about me. phewwwwwwwwww!!!!!

  • The memory stuff actually scares the crap out of me. My sister and I have completely different memories of our childhood, and some memories I can see absolutely clearly in my mind have turned out to be an amalgamation of a bunch of different events that I’ve combined into one. I just hope my kids’ brains pick the good stuff to amalgamate 😉

  • Tash from Gift Grapevine

    My tornadoes have a knack for remembering anything to do with lollies. Funny that. My earliest memory was being at a restaurant called Pizza Showtime. It had mechanical puppets that performed songs when you pressed a button (not creepy at all) and my sister threw up on the way home from eating too much pizza. I must have been 2 or 3 but my sister who is 6 years older than me can’t remember it! Childhood amnesia phenomenon at work? Fascinating stuff xx

  • Holy shit I am going to have nightmares from that doll. Thank heavens for childhood amnesia. Lord knows I have screwed up many a times .. now if only they extended the age to like 18? 😉 xx

  • Thank God for childhood amnesia. How weird would it be if they remembered you breast feeding them??? My first memory was swapping hats at my 2nd birthday party, it was all about me wanting the “princess” hat. That doll…..Zoe xx