Families and friends share memories all the time; “You’ll never guess…”, “How was your day?”, and “Do you remember when…” are rich daily fodder.
Sharing memories is not only a good way to debrief and reminisce, we’re beginning to realise the process plays an important role in children’s psychological development and protects our memories as we advance in age.
Telling stories draws us together
We share memories of the past for many reasons. By telling a sad or difficult story – perhaps a fond memory of someone we have lost since last Christmas – we strengthen shared connections, offer sympathy and elicit support.
By telling a funny or embarrassing story – perhaps the time the dog stole the Christmas ham – we share feelings of joy or recognition of difficulties overcome, large or small. By sharing similar or not-so-similar experiences, we empathise with and understand one another better.
Talking about the past also helps create and maintain our individual and shared identities. We know who we are – whether as individuals, groups or communities – because our memories provide a database of evidence for events we have experienced and what they mean to us.
Even when some people missed out on an event, sharing a memory of it can shape their identity. Developmental psychologist Robyn Fivush and her team demonstrated this when they asked American adolescents to recount “intergenerational” stories: events from their parents’ lives they learnt via memories shared within the family, often around the dinner table.
Fivush found that the adolescents she tested could easily retell many of their parents’ memory stories. Most importantly, they made strong connections between these second-hand family memories and their own developing sense of identity: “my dad played soccer when he was young, so that got me started”.
Children who showed these kinds of family memory-self identity connections reported higher levels of well-being.
Teaching children how to remember
For young children, telling memory stories teaches them how to remember. From as young as two years of age children begin to show signs of autobiographical memory: memories of themselves and their lives.
Although these earliest memories often are fleeting (it is not until our third or fourth birthday that we start forming memories that last into adulthood), they are important because they show that children are learning how to be a rememberer.
Research by developmental psychologists consistently shows that the way parents and others talk to young children about the past is crucial for their memory development.
One of the best ways is to use what we call a “high elaborative” style. This involves prompting the child’s own contributions with open-ended questions (who, what, why, how) and extending on and adding structure to the child’s sometimes limited responses. Together, the parent and child can then jointly tell a memory story that is rich, full and comprehensible.
Consider this example from one of our studies where a mother and her four-year-old son reminisce about a favourite Christmas ritual:
Mother: … and you and Daddy put the Christmas tree up together, and then you put on decorations! What decorations did you put on?
Child: Um… the Christmas balls!
Mother: That’s right! Daddy bought Christmas balls and stars to hang on the tree. What colours were they?
Child: Red and gold.
Mother: Red and gold. Pretty red balls, and gold stars.
Child: And there was the paper circles too.
Notice how the mother guides the progress of her son’s recollections. She is mindful too of letting him contribute as much as he is able, scaffolding his memories with appropriate, open-ended and informative cues. She also reinforces and praises his contributions.
Not surprisingly, children whose parents use this elaborative reminiscing style subsequently show stronger and more detailed memories of their own past experiences.