Some people remember events from when they were two, others remember nothing before they were about seven.
What’s your earliest childhood memory?
I’ve been looking into children’s ability to recall childhood memories, as part of my research for the book I’m writing for those supporting children who are grieving following the loss of a parent.
There is no specific age when we should be able to remember childhood events. It appears to be quite individual. Most adults recall very few details about things that happened before they were three, although will remember things from when they were four or five. Some remember nothing at all before they were seven. I have a friend who recalls being locked in the toilet on an aeroplane when she was two. She was with her very pregnant mum and she remembers details like what clothes her mother was wearing.
Factors that influence how we remember include how we form memories, how they are stored and how they’re retrieved. As infants our brains are developing at a rapid pace, building road works connecting nerves and depots like our hippocampus and our amygdala. These neural networks allow us to form memories. In infancy, these neural pathways are still developing and may not have the amount of structure to organise and form a memory or to store it. It’s like our brains have a large holed sieve and lots of information flows through without being retained. As we age and our brain develops, the holes in our sieve get smaller and we are able to retain more memories.
Repetition helps to strengthen our neural network and new experiences extend our network. While infants and toddlers can form memories, there appears to be a phenomenon termed childhood amnesia, where we forget our earliest memories, possibly because our neural architecture is not strongly formed. Studies suggest this amnesia sets in around aged seven.
One study by psychologist Dr Patricia Bauer at Emory University in the United States involved mothers discussing unique events with their three year old children. Then different subgroups of these children were tested for recall of the events at ages five, six, seven, eight and nine years. Dr Bauer’s results showed children at age five to seven recalled more early life events compared to children who were eight or nine. However the older children recalled more details of the events. Dr Bauer also found the interviewing style of the child’s mother influenced how well the child recalled events later on. Children whose mothers asked them about the events then followed their lead allowing them to elaborate on their storytelling had greater recall.
My earliest childhood memories are between the ages of three to five, when my older siblings were at school and I was the only one at home with Mum. Memories like ‘helping’ her bake cakes and biscuits; making a hole in the biscuit dough so she could fill it with apricot jam; using the end of the wooden spoon to swirl the chocolate and vanilla mixes together to make marble cakes; and the best part of all, getting to lick the bowl and the spoon afterwards without having to share with any siblings. There’s such a warm feeling of love and comfort being around a kitchen table full of baking ingredients. Our kitchen really was the heart of our home.
Other early memories are of me playing in my bedroom while Mum was at her sewing machine in the next room. She was always in my line of sight. I didn’t like to venture far from her side. If she was gardening, I’d be nearby. I remember the sweet smell of her beloved roses, the trellises of snapdragons, ruffles of carnations and my favourite, the deep purples and yellows of pansies.
My most precious memory however, is of her helping me wash my hands; her soft hands cocooning mine, slippery with soap, me standing on tippie toes to reach the tap. She was probably trying to hurry me along so I wouldn’t waste our precious water, but I loved the touch. It felt like an angel wrapping her wings around me. A memory I now lovingly cherish. I believe these times were earlier than the other memories, probably when I was around two or three years of age.
Other early (pre-school) memories are not so pleasant, like me being sick on the side of the road. I don’t know how my mother coped with my carsickness. I suppose she had no choice but to take me with her. Even on short trips of about 35kms between home at Coalstoun Lakes and Gayndah, I’d be sick at least once. Longer trips to places like Murgon, Tansy and Goomeri meant more spew stops. I could make it to Biggenden without being sick though, so I didn’t mind that drive.
I remember a few things from my first day of school. My mum asked me if I wanted to go to school with her as she had to go and enrol me, or if I wanted to catch the school bus with my older brother and sister. I thought I was all ‘grown-up’ so I’d catch the bus. Then before the bus arrived, I felt nervous so I changed my mind and asked if Mum could take me to school instead. But alas, it was too late. She’d already been to the school and wasn’t going back to take me. So I had to catch the bus.
We tend to remember things that were out of the ordinary or things that held high emotions for us at the time, like our first day at school, a birthday party or being bitten by a dog.
What do you remember about your first day at school or other early event in your life?
I’d love you to share some of your earliest childhood memories and how old you were. Or ask your children about events they remember. If they’re seven or older, do they have childhood amnesia? Do they remember their cherished Day Care Mum from when they were two or three?
Please leave your comments. It will help me with the research for my book.