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Making Memories: How Much Do Kids Actually Retain?

Making Memories: How Much Do Kids Actually Retain?

One of my earliest memories—or, rather, the earliest thing I can remember remembering, a few years after it happened—is from a trip I took with my family to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Then, as now, it was one of the few American zoos that could boast of having giant pandas; other unusual attractions included white tigers, African elephants, and polar bears. But what I recall is a single moment, in which I came upon a small, red-lit display case—a fish tank, really, embedded in a freestanding rock-studded column—and found it empty.
Nothing more. That’s it.
Yet, for some reason, that’s what stuck. That this became my first memory was either totally random, or might as well have been.
My daughter, Lila, is nearly two and a half, almost as old as I was on that outing. Contrary to what I might have expected, her memory is rather fantastic; it’s not unusual for her to spontaneously bring up events that happened months before—there continues to be much chit-chat, for example, about the time in early April that a pair of tough city chickens rolled her and her friend Raffi for their cinnamon-raisin bagels—and she’s better at remembering my friend’s names than my husband is. (Just kidding. Well, kind of.) But it’s still much more likely than not that, in a few years, she won’t consciously retain any of this. Recent studies have shown that even infants remember much more than we once believed, but those memories don’t stick; most adults and older children can’t remember anything that happened before their third birthday.
"My daughter's memory is rather fantastic: there continues to be much chit-chat, for example, about the time in early April that a pair of tough city chickens rolled her and her friend Raffi for their cinnamon-raisin bagels."
This is, figuratively, unbelievable to me. By which I mean: Of course I believe it—my own blinkered experience of toddlerhood bears it out. But it still feels a bit sad, and occasionally even infuriating. We’ve spent so much time together over the last two and a half years; we’ve had a lot of fun, but I’ve also done a lot of hard emotional and physical labor. (Lately, this labor has most often taken the form of tantrum-management: the seemingly senseless, full-body rages that are so common among her cohort—you know, the ones that inspired the term “Terrible Twos,” as well as, I’m certain, pretty much every horror movie about a possessed doll or child.)
Photo-Worthy Pieces, So You Can Prove To Them They Had Fun
      I think about all the work I’ve done, and all the fun we’ve had together. If it were possible to separate the two, knowing that she’ll remember neither, I’d probably outsource even more of the former than I already do—she’s currently in daycare 34 hours a week, up from the 27 or so she averaged during her first two years—and keep the latter, if only for my own sake. But of course, that’s not an option, and perhaps that’s for the best. Because I also believe that these experiences, even if she won’t remember them, are forming at least some large-ish part of her personality (again, there are studies that at least partially back me up), and I want to be there for that.
      Of course, underlying my discomfort about the inevitability of Lila forgetting most of our current day-to-day is my fear that I’ll forget much of it too. My memory, like that of everyone my age (or so I tell myself), alternates between being brilliant and garbage. Already, when I’m handed a friend’s newborn, it takes me a second to remember precisely how I’m supposed to hold it. What if the day comes when I can’t recall the exact silly, side-eyed expression that Lila sometimes makes to underscore her jokes? How sad will it be when I can no longer feel her in my lap when I read to her before bedtime? (I won’t miss the tedium of being asked to read the same Peppa Pig book every night, of course.) For her, I know that these moments are building to something, even if she won’t remember them. I guess I’ll just have to hope that the same is true for me—that on some level, this experience of mothering is raising both of us.