Over the years, my kids have forgotten enough stuff in classrooms, gyms and buses to furnish a small (if quirky) home: Thermoses, boots, a sleeping bag, cellphones, purses, a whole set of English notes, enough Tupperware to store years’ worth of food, one jazz shoe…
These are smart kids, absolutely nothing wrong with their memories — for things like the speed of starships, fighting abilities of imaginary creatures, each twist and turn of lengthy conversations: “And-then-he-said-and-then-I-said-and-then-he-said…”
But library books? The dishes? The permission slip that must get to the teacher by tomorrow? Forget it.
It’s easy to be confused — and frustrated — by this incongruity, to think kids are being careless or even untruthful. But a bunch of factors influence the way a person’s memory works, including development, personality and plain old practice. (And it’s not just kids who forget. I lose a good portion of each day searching for keys, papers, passwords.) Here’s an inside look at forgetfulness and how to help kids learn to remember more.
Renée Kennette-Braney of Lachute, Que., mom of Paige and Sierra, both three years, and Ella, six months, is amazed at what her twins remember. “One night Sierra had a boo-boo on her toe. We asked which one. She said, ‘The one that had roast beef!’ She was relating ‘This Little Piggy’ to her boo-boo!”
“Three- and four-year-olds can remember an enormous amount of information — much more than we’ve ever given them credit for,” says Kim Roberts, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Child Memory Lab at Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Still, what they remember might not be what we’d like them to. “Because young children don’t have as much general knowledge as older children or adults, they don’t know how to select what’s important to remember. They often remember things we would think of as trivial, like the fact that there were red and green tiles on the wall the first time they went swimming.”
As a school-aged child’s personality develops, she begins to cultivate hobbies and passions beyond the fleeting interests that younger children have, and this fuels her memory. “She’s starting to define who she is, a soccer player or an expert on Xbox,” says Roberts. “Kids this age accumulate a lot of information about these things because of the intensity of their interest.” Usually by about age 10, Roberts explains, kids are getting close to adult memory levels.
Some things you just have to write down in order to remember them (tax returns, dentist appointments); others are permanently etched in your brain (your kids’ birthdays, your favourite ice cream flavour). Children’s memories are similarly driven. “Some kids seem to be born with these little internal motivators, like pride in their work, and they remember everything,” says Calgary child psychologist Kelly Moroz. “Other kids seem to need more stimulation or some kind of instant gratification to help them remember.” There is no immediate payoff when a child does a math sheet, for example, to entice her to mem-orize the operations she performed. Video games, on the other hand, offer a little reinforcement every second or two — a Mario with a hammer, or a coin dropping out of the sky.
You can always build in incentives. An encouraging word from you may help motivate your child to remember to make his lunch in the morning. For some kids, a more formal reward system could be the nudge they need to help them remember when it’s their turn to take out the garbage.
Tapping into temperament
To some extent, it’s disposition that gives a child the inner push to remember. Roberts says, “Kids who are more active than academic may be at an advantage when it comes to remembering things like dance steps, but at a slight disadvantage remembering things like lists.” But she cautions against assuming that a kid who tends to be physical won’t be able to retain more cerebral material, and vice versa.
Building on a framework
It seems like every day your child learns another dinosaur name or video game trick, and you marvel at the capacity of his memory for new information. In fact, it’s not exactly new information; because your son already has the game down pat, he has a framework into which he can slot updated details. “When you go to a workshop on a topic that’s completely new to you, it’s very hard to take in and remember,” says Roberts. “But at the next workshop, you have the background knowledge and you remember more.”
In the end, the kind of memory chip your child has is less important than helping her learn to use it. Roberts stresses, “A lot of it is kids knowing their own limitations and compensating, learning when they need to put a strategy into place.” (And it’s not just kids who need strategies. If I don’t have a detailed list, several zip-top bags and three weeks to pack for a trip, I won’t even remember to bring toothpaste.)
Repetition helps! Roberts says, “If the coat always goes on the hook and the shoes always go on the mat, then the child doesn’t have to remember it anymore — she just knows it.” The benefits go beyond getting coats on hooks and shoes on mats. “It gives the child confidence and a sense of independence,” says Roberts.
When you can, help your child make connections: If she has a list of supplies to get into her backpack, help her develop a narrative to aid her memory. Roberts suggests, “You might make up a story about a giant pencil that bounced wherever it went. It bounced into a pencil sharpener, and then the sharpener broke, and a big bird scooped it up and dumped it into a lunch bag. If your child can remember the first thing, the giant pencil, it will help lead her on to the next item.”
Linking forgettable details to things that matter can also help. Your child doesn’t remember to put her dishes in the dishwasher because chores don’t matter to her. French verbs? She may not see why she needs to bother. If you can link the dishes or the verbs to something that she does care about — time playing with the Wii, say — she’ll be more likely to remember.
Studies have shown that when young children are given one task and are then distracted with another one, they don’t seem to remember as much. That’s why watching TV and eating while doing homework doesn’t work well. It may be different with adolescents (just as they’d have us believe!) — listening to music and chewing gum actually seems to help them focus a little on their tasks. “But with younger kids, it definitely divides their attention,” says Roberts.
Love a list
We can’t forget lists, even scribbled on serviettes or the backs of envelopes. While they don’t really improve memory, they’ll probably help to ensure your kid remembers what she needs to — a boost for her self-esteem (and a relief for you). Moroz suggests a little reminder chart in the locker. “Perhaps include three items on the checklist: ‘Did I pack my homework, my gym clothes and my lunch bag?’ The research supports that these little aids do work.” A small laminated chart with a marker can help in the same way — your child can check off the vacuuming he’s finished or the garbage that’s in the bin. Happy day!