Memory

How do parents shape a child's memory?
Answered by Ellen Stockstill and Science Channel
  • Ellen Stockstill

    Ellen Stockstill

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. The human memory is a peculiar thing.  What makes us remember some events and forget others, and why do some people have better memories than others do?  Neuroscientists are still trying to figure out how we form our memories and recall them.  By studying cognitive development in children, these scientists hope they will discover how humans learn to remember their lives, and what inhibits or encourages memory formation.  As with other aspects of cognitive development, parents play an important role in how their children's memories will function as they grow. 

    Parents help shape the memories of their children by reminiscing with them, telling stories, repeating the details of particular events, and instilling those details in the minds of their children.  Researchers have found that the style in which parents reminisce with their children affects how well children remember the details of their childhoods.  In terms of autobiographical memory, researchers have established two different styles of reminiscing or talking about past events with children.  

    The first, elaborative reminiscing, involves telling stories about the past in rich detail and inviting the child to join in the storytelling, letting the child add details to the story or tell parts of it.  The other type of reminiscing is known as repetitive or low elaborative style.  Parents or caregivers that engage in this style of reminiscing typically ask questions about past events rather than tell detailed stories about them.  For example, a mother might ask her son, "What game did we play at your birthday party last year?"  While this style might seem to encourage the child to remember a detail on his own, studies have shown that children of parents who reminisce this way cannot remember as many details about past events as children of parents with the elaborative style of reminiscing.  Experts believe this is because children of elaborative storytellers learn from their caregivers a narrative framework that helps them remember the details of a past event [source: Bauer et al].  In other words, by making an event into a story with characters, action, consequences and punch lines, these caregivers show their children how to construct their personal histories as their own stories with actors, characters, consequences and punch lines.  Because these children situate the details of their experiences into a larger narrative, it seems that they are able to recall these details more easily.  This research emphasizes the value of autobiographical storytelling.  While you might complain about the long stories your father tells at Thanksgiving, it's possible that he's helping you remember your life better.

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  2. Research shows that parents can significantly shape a child's autobiographical memory by verbally recalling memories with their kids. In fact, children often narrate childhood memories in the same style as their parents. Therefore, if a parent vividly recalls the memory of a birthday party, the child is more likely to describe the event in detail, as well [source: Urshwa]. It is noteworthy to recognize that autobiographical memory is also shaped by culture. For instance, Westerners' personal memories tend to be self-focused, whereas Easterners tend to remember themselves more in a group context [source: Urshwa].

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