One of my earliest memories is from when I was five years old. It was a summer afternoon in my backyard. Our belligerent goat was strutting around, the tiny rooster was squawking like he wasn’t actually scared of the chickens, and my sister and I were eating crisps in the sunshine. She finished hers in a few gulps and turned her gaze to me.

“You’re doing it wrong,” she noted.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re eating them wrong. Here, let me show you.”

I was really lucky to have an older sister kind enough to teach me the right way to eat snack food. She even undertook the task of eating my crisps and let me practice on air while she patiently demonstrated the right way to chew until the packet was empty. I remember this for several reasons: sitting in the sun with my sister felt really nice until she stole my food, and the sheer genius of her cunning was repeated in family circles for years to come.

Why memory is important

Research tells me that there is nothing remarkable about this as an early memory – most adults can only remember back until they were five, four at the earliest, and memories tend to be based around significant relationships. Incidents that become part of family lore are also more likely to be recorded in long-term memory.

This doesn’t mean that memory doesn’t function properly until the age of five though. There was a time when it was thought that babies and toddlers couldn’t remember much at all, they were just kind of eternally surprised and confused. However, now we know that even three-month-old babies can remember things that happened a few weeks ago (a quarter of their lifetime!).

Research has also found that all childhood experiences exert a significant impact on who we become as adults, regardless of whether we can actively recall our childhoods or not. The good news is that as parents, we have some influence about the type and quality of memories our children will lay down. It’s also possible to boost our children’s literacy skills by discussing family memories and events. So what do you think your kid’s earliest memory will be?

How memory works

The earliest proof of memory has been found while babes are still in the womb. Researchers found babies responded with recognition to a series of sounds they had heard in utero at 30 weeks. This also corresponds to neuron development in the babies’ brains. We don’t know how long newborns can remember things for, but from six months of age, babies are capable of remembering things for up to three weeks. Three-year-olds have been found to have memories from 12 months previously.

These findings line up with what’s going on in the brain. The hippocampus and prefrontal campus (responsible for storing and retrieving memories) are in development from early infancy, however they will not reach their true capacity until around the age of seven. The interesting thing is that memory shifts as children age, thus a four-year-old may be able to remember their second birthday, but by the age of six that memory will probably be gone.

This disruption of memory is thought to occur for several reasons: a lack of neural development, lack of language skills, and, also, culture. Children raised in Maori culture tend to have earlier and more involved childhood memories. This is in part attributed to parental involvement with children, particularly including them in stories about their shared past.

Despite the fact that most of us cannot recall our early childhood experiences, every experience or emotional response we had is imprinted in our brains. This is called implicit memory, and it’s helpful when we’re remembering how to ride a bike without thinking about it, but it also means that the emotional patterns we constructed as children are likely to follow us the rest of our lives. Memory really is a critical aspect of life, and it’s working all the time.

What they will remember

We all have glorious days that we truly hope our children will remember fondly (oh how we laughed), as well as days we would all sooner forget (oh how we cried). Which of those experiences are more likely to be recalled as our children age?

A study conducted into childhood memories found that there was a common theme: it didn’t matter whether a memory was essentially positive or negative, all memories showcased a critical childhood relationship, most often between parent and child. Experiences were remembered more frequently than toys, and the most ordinary interactions were remembered more frequently. Daily occurrences that highlighted a special relationship were more likely to make the cut than a one-off big ticket item or trip. It doesn’t matter what you provide to your children as long as you give them pieces of your heart and your time. That’s what they’ll remember.

You have the power

Research has discovered that parents actually have a lot of control over how and what their children recall. Parents who talk a lot to their children are more likely to have kids who recall memories with rich detail. This means engaging children in conversations about their day and adding in emotional detail.

“How did you feel about the spider? You were scared huh? That’s why you ran? What did Mummy do! She screamed so loud!”

These tend to be more powerful than emotionally-limited conversations: “Yes there was a spider but it’s gone now.”

Adding in more than just the bare facts means children are more likely to remember the experience long term. Talking about our experiences in terms of who, what, when, where, and how boosts literacy and helps children learn the mechanics of a narrative, both valuable life skills. Memory is based around storytelling, and the stories we tell our children about their own lives will be the ones they tell themselves as they grow older.

Memory is immensely powerful. Even before we are capable of knowing that we can remember things, we are remembering things. Our children won’t remember how many hours we spent holding them when they were sick or just inexplicably awake in the middle of the night. They won’t remember the ridiculous pony tea-set game or how they desperately wanted the cat litter, but all those moments will find somewhere to settle in their brains. They may not be able to recall these but the memories are still teaching them they are loved and valuable. We can tell our stories to our children, and trust that eventually those stories will become their own. Everything we do can make a difference, memory is proof of that.