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Why The First Years Are So Important, Even Though Our Kids Remember Nothing

Recently, my three-year-old son and I were back at his daycare for a school play date. He hadn’t seen the school since shortly after his second birthday. We peered into the play yard and he immediately said, “Hey, they have a new slide!” He remembered the yard and its exact contents even though he hadn’t been there in almost a year.

If you have a preschooler, or even a little toddler, you know how impressive their little memories are. They hang on to details for longer and longer periods starting in the first year of life. I’ve written about kids’ memory development before and when I interviewed one prominent memory researcher, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, she told me about her experiments to test little baby memory; 2-month-olds can easily remember isolated events for a few days, whereas 6-month-olds can remember an event for about two weeks. If you “remind them,” however, the memories persist for months (that’s why if grandma visits frequently enough even your tiny newborn will remember her).

It just grows from there, until by the early preschool years our kids remember events that happened a year ago or more.

So then why do memories from the first three years of life eventually get wiped out? And how can those years be so important if they fade into nothing in our memories?

Today in the journal Child Development, researchers report that our recall for events becomes consolidated around the age of 10. Before that, if you ask kids what their first memories are, the answer will keep shifting later and later.

For example, the scientists interviewed kids ages 4-7 about their first memories. The kids cited examples of things that had happened years before (just as my son remembered something from when he was two). When they interviewed the same kids two years later, though, almost all of those memories had faded — replaced by now later “first memories.” The researchers believe that we don’t exactly lose our first memories behind a wall of “infantile amnesia” as Freud thought, it’s just that they keep getting replaced by newer and newer memories. Finally, around the age of 10, the first memories stick.

The irony, of course, is that even though little kids don’t remember much before the age of 3, those years are the most instrumental — their impact stretches through the rest of life. How can that be?

It’s because little kids accrue “implicit” memories — these are skills like riding a bike, talking, walking — which are different from “explicit” memories (our conscious recall for specific events or facts). A good way to distinguish the two: you may not remember the day you learned to ride a bike, but you do remember the skill of riding. Kids have expert implicit memory from day one — explicit takes a lot longer.

And emotional memories and habits fall under the implicit memories umbrella, so rest assured your little one “remembers” the love and attention you gave her in her first years even though she’ll never remember a single snuggle session later in life. In the end, whether we consciously remember family trips or summer vacations, the feelings we take way — the implicit memories — are the most powerful.

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