Creating Memories

Creating Memories


In Marianne’s last two columns on Bev Bos, she shared and reinforced Bev’s belief of the importance of parents creating memories and traditions for children and of passing on memories and traditions from their own childhoods. I would like to expand this theme a bit further.

There are really two related but separate themes here. One is the theme of children creating new memories of experiences such as family vacations, decorating for the holidays, and other activities they are part of. The other is the theme of parents passing down memories and traditions from the past before the children were born. When parents pass down memories from their childhoods, children take them in pretty much the attitude in which they were offered. If parents paint a rosy picture of a cohesive and supportive family, children feel part of a cohesive and supportive family. If parents paint a picture of a family’s strength in struggling against great odds, children identify with this strength, assume it is part of their heritage, and strive to live into it themselves. The essence of the family’s values and worldview is portrayed in the stories parents choose to pass on. This can be a powerful influence on the values and worldview a child is in the process of forming.

But how do children form memories of their own current experiences and how do these memories influence their views of themselves, their families, and the world? Are we as parents doing enough to help children process their immediate experience so that the memories they form are of themselves as capable, caring, resilient people and of the world around them as responsive, caring, and not overwhelming.

Most parents are eager to give their children a wide range of opportunities to experience all manner of wonders and challenges. We take children on fabulous vacations to far away places and give them the opportunity to experience everything from participating in government to skydiving. We assume this exposure is related to future success in the world. But do we spend much time helping them process their experiences into long term memory in a form that will help them in the future? Or are we so busy planning the next “worthwhile experience” that we don’t take the time to process the last one? (We’ve got to get back from Cancun on Friday because basketball tryouts are on Saturday!)

Memories are formed not solely by the doing of an activity but by the processing of the experience into long term memory. And the important part of this processing is not the cold facts of where you went and what you did but how you felt about it and what you concluded about yourself and the nature of the world around you on the basis of this experience. When a parent helps a child to reflect on his experience and to make something positive out of it, the child has a memory to rely on that will influence his future willingness to take risks and to trust in himself and others. Children need help in identifying and feeling OK about their emotions surrounding an experience and in understanding the motivations of others. They need help in understanding what happened and in problem-solving so that things go better next time. They need help in turning a possibly overwhelming memory into a coherent story with a positive outcome. Once this is done, it is ready to become part of the next generation of the family’s collective memories. And when these memories are recalled frequently, they bind a family together and include the children in the family’s collective tradition.

“Remember when we went camping and I got lost in the woods and I remembered you told me that if I got lost to stay where I was and Daddy found me and you were crying, Mommy, and you hugged me and hugged me?” This is a memory packed with priceless growth in confidence in self and family and assurance of parental love. I hope it becomes a story that is told frequently in this family for years after.

“Remember when we went to Disneyland and the car broke down and Mom and Dad had a horrible fight and Dad threw the keys away and marched off and Mom sat down and cried. But then Dad came back and told Mom he was sorry and she said she was sorry too and we put up the tent and camped right there and made popcorn for supper and it was more fun than even the rides at Disneyland. Mom and Dad love to laugh about it now.” Think of the subtleties this child learned about fighting and making up and being able to say you’re sorry. I hope this one becomes part of the family history as well.

“I remember when I tried out for the travel team but didn’t make it. I felt awful. Then Daddy told me that the same thing happened to him when he was little and he was afraid his Dad was disappointed in him. But he found out he wasn’t, and he and his Dad practiced in the backyard all summer and the next year he made the team. I asked Daddy if he would practice with me and he said that would be more fun than anything else he could think of. We had so much fun that summer!”

What if the two camping stories had instead been processed as “Remember those awful camping trips? I never want to go camping again.” And what if the tryout experience was simply not talked about because “it’s better not to talk about painful experiences. Don’t mention it and he’ll forget about it.” And maybe he will. Maybe he’ll push it right out of his memory. But maybe the next time he has the opportunity to risk failing at something he’ll say, “I don’t want to try out. I don’t want to play anyway.”

Memories can have an incredible power to define who we are and to support us in that definition for years to come. But before they can do this, they must be processed by the child. Parents have the opportunity to help make this processing a chance for growth in self-knowledge, resilience, trust, empathy, and optimism. And when stories are recalled over and over, they can be an ongoing source of support. So relive your family’s experiences, both joys and struggles, with photos, stories and rituals. Display in prominent places photos of loved ones who have died or are far away. Take time to sit together and look at albums and scrapbooks and recall not just the facts they represent but the feelings surrounding those facts. Don’t let the demands of the present (OMG, we’ll be late!) or the sacrifices you are willing to make for a future goal (This is a study night. You’ve got to do well on that test tomorrow) rob you of the gifts offered by recall of well-processed memories of the past.

Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.