I was watching an interesting programme on the BBC the other night called “Child of Our Time” that is part of a long-term series. It is charting the growth and development of 25 children who were born on the eve of the new millennium. The episode I watched was concerned with how babies memories are formed and how long they last. It was, as is always the case with programmes hosted by Professor Winston, very interesting.
One segment was about giving children happy memories. While babies do record memories permanently, they don’t seem to be accessible to their conscious minds when they get older. One test had the children’s parents looking at things they won’t have seen since they were children and while they couldn’t remember them at all, their bodies reacted to them – such as heart rate increasing and the like. It was quite eerie to see a man who had been brought up during the war being fed the rationed baby food of the time. He said it tasted terrible and was sure he’d never eaten it before, but the heart rate monitors proved that his brain remembered it.
The resounding advice that I got from the programme was that as soon as children can consciously remember things in their long-term memories, you need to give them as many happy memories as you can. When the parents were asked to recall some happy memories from their childhoods, most of them could remember a handful. But when asked to recall unhappy memories they could all list many more. So negative memories have a larger impact than positive ones, or at least are more memorable (if that makes sense).
One of the women had had a pretty unhappy childhood, particularly in her relationship with her father. He tended to fly off the handle with her and shout at her a lot. Another of the parents was finding that her daughter was being very disobedient and that she ended up shouting at her a lot (as I’m sure many parents do). A child psychologist came along and pointed out that as the mother didn’t play with her daughter enough, then her daughter didn’t feel as close to her mother as she should. As a result, the kid would be a brat and the vicious circle of arguments would continue. It was apparent as the psychologist played with the child that the mother was a bit embarrassed and wouldn’t join in. The child was reaching out in her own way and was inadvertently being spurned by her mother. After joining in things changed. The bottom line is that to get a child to behave you have to understand what’s going on inside their head and try to not react in the way you would with another adult. Easy for me to say. But it seemed to work.
Watching this programme made me think back to my childhood (oddly enough). Believe it or not I’ve turned out to be a fairly well adjusted guy with no temper and no hang-ups. And the main reason for that was my happy childhood. When I try to think of happy memories I have dozens that spring to mind. But when I try to think of bad ones I always come up empty. No, all the bad things happened when I was old enough to deal with them! My mother admitted that when my brother and I came along she didn’t have a clue what to do with us so she just made it up as she went along. She found it pretty tough at times with two active and mischievous sons wanting attention all the time, but she did an amazing job. It was interesting to hear all the advice of the child psychologist and recognise that, without realising it, my mother had followed them to the letter. I hope that I can do half as well when I’m a parent.
So the key is to provide a child with as many happy memories as possible. But this isn’t the whole story though. For instance if you’re genetically predisposed to produce too little serotonin then you’ll be susceptible to depression no matter how happy your childhood. I guess all you can do as a parent is your best and keep your fingers crossed.
The strangest thing that I saw on the programme was a demonstration of how unreliable the human memory is. The parents were shown pictures of themselves when they were younger and also a photo of them hot air ballooning. That picture was doctored as none of them had ever done it before, and said they couldn’t remember it. But when they came back 2 weeks later and were shown the photo again, half of them said that they had eventually remembered the day. Of course it had never happened, but if you try to picture yourself in a situation for long enough your brain will store that image into memory and later on it’ll feel like it really happened. The brain doesn’t distinguish between memories that are real and imagined. This further backs up my assertion that you can’t tell what reality is anyway.
I just thought it was an interesting programme and that I’d put some of my observations down. For the record. I’m not getting any younger and will no doubt be a parent within the next few years (ay karumba). I’ll need all the help I can get!