Guest Post: Creating Happy Memories for Our Kids

Fresh off a reunion where my kids heard tales from aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins I can't quite place in the family tree, I wonder what they'll remember and tell their children. The old folk, hubby and self included, we reminisced about meals past, vacations past, houses past, childhood friends, pets, paper routes, broken limbs, summer camp, teachers, tropical storms, basketball games. The time Uncle Gary got lost in the Grand Canyon (without water). The time their grandfather forgot the plug for the sailboat (they would have won the race if not for all the water). The time their father out-ran a thigh-high flood on a glacial river bed in Alaska. The hurricane that demolished most of Nina's house but left the coffee mugs neatly hanging in place. To keep with the water theme, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Maybe it's because they're from the South but my in-laws tell a good yarn, even my husband who spends much of his days with numbers.

What will my kids will soak up in all the tales of their father's colorful kin? What will they remember? Come to think of it, how will they remember my family? Their childhood?  Friend of Momma Data, Dr. Elizabeth Reitz, a licensed clinical psychologist, blogger and mother of two young children, takes on the issue of childhood memories in a guest post here today. She tells us how to help nourish our budding memoir-writers, future filmmakers or therapy candidates. If you've never read her blog, you're in for a treat. Stir up some lemonade, towel off the chaise lounge and start talking to the kiddies about whatever you'd like them to remember (or not remember). The laundry can wait.

Creating Happy Memories for Our Kids

Lately I've been wondering what events from their childhood my kids will remember when they are adults.  When I'm in the thick of day-to-day parenting tasks, I something can't help but wonder which, if any, of the many moments we share together they will hang onto in the long run. I hope to God they will most clearly remember the science experiments, seemingly endless summer days at the park, trips to the museum, laughing together, and nighttime cuddles, and the moments I wish I could take back will not stand out in their minds.

I had the pleasure to spend last weekend with 4 of my closest girlfriends from high school. One night over dinner and drinks I threw the question out there of what they remember most from their childhoods. We all shared the flashbulb memories we have of our parents, siblings, and friends.  One of my friends made the excellent point that is not just the events of childhood that stand out in her mind, but how her mother talked about events with her that contributed to her feeling loved and secure.  Yes, of course!  This reminded me of research I had read briefly back in graduate school, so I decided to pull it up.  Most interestingly, there are things I can do now to increase the likelihood my kids will remember the experiences I work so hard to create for them.

This review does a great job of describing what research has taught us about this topic, specifically, about mothers' reminiscing style with their kids.  The long and the short of it is that mothers who reminisce with their kids in a more elaborated manner, have kids who remember events with more detail and with more coherence.  Being an elaborate reminiscer is made up of a number of factors. Mainly, these mothers get their kids involved in the discussion. It is not enough to simply model reminiscing and remembering to our kids by retelling the events of a shared experience to them. We need to get them engaged and encourage the development of their own autobiographical voice, they need to be the author of their own life events. To do this, a handful of techniques have been identified as important.

First, ask open-ended questions when processing an event. So, rather than saying, "did you have fun at the zoo?" say, "what did you enjoy at the zoo?"  The use of this technique increases with age, such that mothers of older preschoolers tend to employ it more frequently. With younger children, it is developmentally sensitive to pose the open ended question and then follow it up with close ended questions (yes or no answers) to help the child cultivate their answer. Open ended questions are important because the child's task of putting their experience into words helps them to represent it more richly in their minds.

Second, reinforce your child's contributions to the conversation with positive affirmations, and, more importantly, by repeating their answers and weaving their content into the overall story the two of you are creating together. Although repeating a child's answers might feel unnatural at first, doing so helps them to feel heard and understood, and it helps to elicit more information from them. You may find that after repeating or lightly summarizing their response, they add another layer of detail. (This type of reflecting is a useful technique in any parenting situation in which you want your child to share and to feel validated.)

Third, include in the discussion what you and your child were each thinking and feeling during the event, or your unique internal states. Don't be afraid to talk about differences in each of your experiences because doing so will teach your child that their perspective is unique, which aids in their development of theory of mind. Indeed, mothers who have styles of reminiscing that are highly elaborate, have kids who are better at perspective taking.

It is important to allow your child to have a different perspective than your own, rather than imposing our own experience of the event onto them. Although it is tempting to only accentuate the positives within the memory (especially if we get caught up in wanting our kids to remember the good stuff the most clearly!), discussion of negative emotions also provides opportunity for important teachable moments.

The added bonus to all of this is that kids of mothers who reminisced with great elaboration, also had better literacy skills.  Reminiscing places a significant linguistic demand on the child and provides them with practice in relaying sequences of information. Reminiscing also goes well beyond a cognitive task by creating a shared history together that fosters emotional bonds. Elaboration in reminiscing style is also related to better quality attachment and relationship between child and mother.

Personally, I'm also looking forward to doing more of this with Leo, and eventually Emilia, because it helps me to slow down and fully experience our lives together. I find that in the bustle of the day-to-day, I can get more focused on the details involved in arriving on time and leaving the house with the many supplies we need than on the big picture of being fully present in all the happy memories we are creating and sharing.

Thanks, Elizabeth.
Now go create some memories, lacrosse camp and dental appoinment be damned. Forget the cell phone and the plug for the boat once in a while. Check out Elizabeth's blog where she brings psychological theory and research to honest everyday stories about her kids and being a parent. I trust her children will have plenty of positive moments for the Family History Project (fourth grade?) as her posts are both accessible and educational and she writes in a kind and knowing voice that I imagine comforts many people seeking her professional help. Girlfriend also believe the experts can get "stumped from time to time."

Caio. I'm off to work on the The Summer My Mother Taught Me So Many Valuable Life Skills and I Just Thought We Were Having Fun Story.    

Now go read Elizabeth's blog.

No comments: