Photo Credit: Gaby Stein from Pixabay

For years, our family had “Ralph” in all his plush furry glory. He was our secret sauce for building the children’s memories. He’s now happily stored in everyone’s memory bank.

Ralph, a small stuffed animal, was handed out at the family awards dinner at the end of our annual vacation. Ralph was coveted, wanted by all and the recipient was chosen based on attitude, willingness, and participation in activities—a sort of “all around camper” trophy. Ralph consistently was awarded to a child and spent a year until the next vacation in the home of the winner.

The last time we gathered the children were all young adults. Atypically, that year Ralph was presented to my brother—a father and grandfather. Sadly, Ralph (shown before he) was completely devoured by my brother and sister-in-law’s new, real dog acquired during the pandemic. Nonetheless, Ralph lives on as a positive reminder of family fun and time together. He is talked about frequently and remains an indelible memory. Why is that?

What makes a memory stand out?

Why do some memories stay stronger than others? In part, what we do together with friends and family has the power to stick. “Our most treasured memories are likely experiences we shared with other people (e.g., birthday party) rather than something we did alone (e.g., receiving good grades),” according to a study reported in Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Creating memories built on fun and tradition and with people close to us are more important than lavishing children with gifts that will be used for short periods and forgotten. In general, for younger children fewer toys are a better option.

New research indicates that children older than 12 “derive more happiness from their experiences than from their possessions.” In research titled, Age differences in children’s happiness from material goods and experiences,” Lan Nguyen Chaplin and her colleagues at the University of Illinois analyzed four studies that suggest “children ages 3-12 derive more happiness from material things than from experiences.”

Chaplin went on to indicate that “Since memory is developed over time, it’s likely that children, especially young ones, may not derive as much happiness from past experiences as from possessions.” I don’t entirely agree. There are many ways to turn young children’s experiences into positive memories. Think Ralph who became a family tradition when the children were quite young or a trip you plan to take in the future or a silly holiday—any holiday—celebration you have with friends and their children. Or with your own children every year. 

Perhaps you make it a point to sit down with your child or children and write a letter to Santa or set out cookies each Christmas Eve. Maybe Santa leaves a letter to read on Christmas morning that reminds your toddler to stop hitting or biting.

You could make an event of creating new simple tree ornaments during the preholiday season, pulling them out to rehang year and year after. Baking favorite cookies with a young child in charge of the mixing or spreading the sprinkles. Easy little things long remembered, but part of the secret sauce of starting and holding onto memories.

Keeping memories alive for young children

The process of recall is like reading the same book to your child repeatedly. An article on Edutopia, “The Neuroscience of Narrative and Memory,” details how this repetition helps build memories: “That childhood desire of children—wanting to hear books read aloud and repeatedly requesting those few they know well enough to predict—encompasses powerful brain drives that become memory enhancers. The experiences we have with narratives starting as young children establish supportive conditions in the brain for learning and remembering, based on a foundation of emotional connections to the experience of being read to or told stories.”

The secret sauce for building children’s memories

Young children’s memories need prompting and reminders. Here are effective ways to relive experiences and keep memories alive—front and center in your child’s brain:

  • Use technology to make it easy to help young children recall fun experiences and traditions. Take lots of pictures and videos.
  • Replay them regularly as reminders of the good times you had together.
  • Talk about the cake that collapsed or the icing that turned brown from too many drops of food coloring. Or the holiday stew that was so thick you couldn’t get the spoon out to serve it.
  • Ask for your children’s input. Ask them what they remember and what they might like to do for an upcoming holiday or family time.
  • Repetition is key, especially for younger children. Think, Ralph and my family’s awards dinner—every year for years.
  • Include one of your child’s aunts, uncles or friends or friend’s family when feasible.

Memories stay alive when they are shared

Li Guan and Qi Wang at Cornell University investigated if and how sharing memories makes us closer.  In their cross-cultural study of adult relationships using imagined conversations, they concluded that “sharing memories not only brings people closer but is also associated with psychological well-being,” surely important goals parents have for their children.  

For More on the Secret Sauce for Building Memories see Little Things Long Remembered