Ages & Stages: Remember When?

How clearly do you remember your first day of kindergarten or your sixth birthday party? Do you remember who sat next to you in the second grade or what your favorite color was when you were 10?

As parents, we take great pains to make our children’s lives perfect in the hopes they’ll recall their childhoods fondly. Certainly, working to create wondrous memories for our children is important during holidays, personal milestones and special extracurricular activities, but new research indicates that obsessing over every detail of every birthday party and soccer game might be a waste of time.

Memory Changes with Age
Memory research pioneers are beginning to understand that, whether or not parents methodically tend to the details of fond memories, when children reach the age of 10, they begin to lose a majority of their earliest memories.

A study conducted by Carole Peterson, a psychologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, published in the August 2005 issue of Memory, helps explain how and what children remember.


Most adults assume that memories fade with age. And Peterson’s conclusions partially support this assumption. She and her team determined that at the age of 10 a person begins to enter his or her “adult” stage of memory. Although adults and teens may be able to recall brief “snapshot memories” from early childhood, their first vividly detailed memories generally are from somewhere around the age of 10.

Peterson’s study expands upon what she calls “the paradox surrounding childhood amnesia and adults inability to recall autobiographical events that occurred before the age of 4.” In her study, 136 participants ages 6 to 19 were asked to describe their earliest memories.

Peterson and her team of researchers found that children ages 6 to 9 recalled events earlier, easier and more accurately than their older counterparts. Four- and 5-year-olds readily recalled autobiographical events that occurred when they were 2, but by age 10, these memories had receded behind what Peterson refers to as a “reminiscence bump.”

Memories Linked to Events, Emotions
Anyone who has suddenly remembered snippets of a childhood incident in the middle of the grocery store or while driving to work can appreciate the work of experts like Peterson, who has spent tireless hours studying early memories and how they impact adolescents and adults. Some experts believe older children and adults have the ability to release early memories trapped behind the reminiscence bump when they are relaxed or content.

Additionally, researchers have found that early childhood memories are occasionally recovered as the result of trauma or illness or when specific emotional states or physical sensations are experienced.

Despite the efforts of Peterson and other memory researchers, there is still a great deal we may never understand. “It’s not at all clear why some things get into long-term memory and why some do not,” says Peterson.

Memories and Health
Most early memories begin between the ages of 3 and 4, but some people can recall specific emotional or traumatic experiences. Regardless of the date of origin, memories can influence physical and emotional health.

Remembering the joy of playing with a childhood pet or the thrill of riding a roller coaster for the first time can lower a person’s blood pressure. On the other hand, remembering a sad or scary event can elevate blood pressure or cause headaches and exhaustion.

“Being able to remember the comfort felt from being held by a parent or the anticipation of spending the weekend with a grandparent offers tremendous security and support for adults,” says Julie Smith-Ryznicki, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Because difficult memories can be painful to experience, a child who endured significant emotional or physical trauma may need to be coaxed and encouraged to remember the event in order to effectively process the incident and then file it away properly. “Suppressing traumatic memories can lead to social and relationship dysfunction or further inexplicable trauma,” cautions Smith-Ryznicki.

Reinforcing and Nurturing Memories
As your children grow, there may be special occasions, such as birthday parties or family vacations, you want your children to remember. Despite the forthcoming reminiscence bump and the graduation to adult memory, there are ways parents can help their children to remember moments from childhood.

“Talking about her or his first day of school, winning soccer goal or favorite aunt’s special apple pie continually re-files memories,” says Smith-Ryznicki. Reliving favorite moments and details from a family vacation can help children keep those memories in front of their reminiscence bump well past age 10.

Reviewing photos taken at a birthday party, watching movies from a beach vacation and cooking favorite meals from younger years can spark memories of childhood situations and events. Maintaining individual or family journals, photo albums and scrapbooks is another excellent way to nurture and sustain beloved memories.

Memories remind us where we came from and where we belong — they provide a sense of family and history. “Childhood memories are a vital part of older children and adults, and anything we can do to help preserve (such memories) is always beneficial,” Smith-Ryznicki says.


Gina Roberts-Grey is a licensed clinical social worker and freelance writer who frequently covers parenting issues