I have a distinct memory of meeting my sister for the first time. I was just 21 months old when I peeked into her hospital bassinet. I stood captured by her new, pink face, my parents joyfully watching. I remember every minute of it — or do I? The truth is, I wasn't yet 2 years old, and probably have made this memory my own as a result of pictures showed and stories told to me. Whether or not young kids can remember big life events is why parents wonder things like, "Will my toddler remember going to Disney?" Because is there a point in going if they can't?
"When I think back to my own life experiences as a child, I often wonder if I actually remember certain experiences or if I have seen pictures of the experience and been told stories that go along with the pictures, therefore thinking I remember an event instead of actually having an authentic memory," Julie Kandall, the educational director at NYC-based Columbus Pre-School tells Romper in an email interview. "Because children before the age of 2 do not typically have strong language skills, it is difficult for them to hold onto early memories, and as children's language develops and they are able to talk about experiences after they occur, these experiences tend to be more easily remembered as children get older."
So, it sounds like maybe I am on to something with my own toddler "memory" of first meeting my sister.
"Today, with children constantly looking at pictures of themselves on the computer, iPhone, tablet, and other electronic devices, I wonder if they will recall more 'memories' of events that occurred when they were 1 and 2 years old simply because they have been exposed to the images and have been engaged in conversations about their experiences," Kandall adds.
According to Slate, a study published 20 years ago showed that children who had visited Disney when they were only 3 years old could remember detailed memories of it 18 months later. Another paper published in 2012 by Child Development discussed a 27-month-old child who had witnessed a “magic shrinking machine” and remembered the event some six years later, the website noted.
But there's some more science that can better explain the capacity for memory at a young age, Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory who studies early memory, told Slate. "Think of memory as like orzo," she said. "It’s not like one big piece of lasagna noodle. Memories are made up of these little tiny bits of information that are coming in literally across the entire cortex. Parts of the brain are taking those little bits of information and knitting them together into something that’s going to endure and be a memory.”
When it comes to how adults use that information as opposed to babies, Bauer explained that while adults have a fine-mesh net to capture the orzo, "babies have a big-holed colander: The orzo slips through." That means for babies and toddlers alike, a lot of early experiences never become memories.
But there is a way to, perhaps, help them better preserve those "memories."
My sister — who is clearly the real centerpiece of this article — and her husband recently took a trip to Ireland with my nephew, Oscar, who was just 23 months old at the time. I know. Brave souls, right? They are counting on him not remembering most of the trip, but it doesn't mean they didn't try the hell out of making sure he does. During the trip, they each wrote to Oscar about various experiences, took tons of photos, and did unique things throughout the trip that would make it especially memorable. Now that they are home, they regularly recount the trip to him and tell stories, so that he can hold the memories close. Because that's really what it's all about, right?
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