HELP! What is wrong with my son’s memory?

Have you had the experience of sending your son off to his bedroom to get his shoes, only to find that he never returns?

This is an incredibly common experience in many homes and one that is particularly perplexing and frustrating for mums.

This is but one interesting example of boys’ memory failures.

A mum came up to me after a seminar recently to tell me a story about her son and his teeth brushing experiences. Her son was now eight and she was pretty sure that she had helped him to realise the importance of the habit of cleaning his teeth morning and night.

So, she felt quietly confident when he went to the school dentist for a check-up. The dentist found her son had three cavities and his teeth were in a really bad way. He may also have implied that she was a poor parent for not teaching her son about the importance of cleaning his teeth.

Besides being horrified and shocked, she was completely mystified as to how her son had apparently been forgetting to clean his teeth twice a day. He had gone to the bathroom morning and night – and she had thought that meant he was cleaning his teeth. However he seemed to have forgotten that pretty crucial part of the bathroom ritual!

I know many little boys who can run in from playing outside and have a quick poo and run straight back outside, forgetting to wipe their bottom or wash their hands.

Have you ever asked your son how his day at school was on the drive home only to hear him say he can’t remember?

Living with boys with poor memories was incredibly frustrating for me at times. How can you forget where to park your bike — rather than leave it on the driveway? How can an eight-year-old boy need to still come and ask you where socks are when you have had one sock drawer — for at least 10 years — where all socks are always put after they have been washed? How can they come and ask you where their school bag is when they were the one who dropped it somewhere in your house? Where is the milk is another I remember fondly – same place in fridge door each time?

Simple habits like wearing a hat when going into the sun, wearing underpants to school and remembering to put your lunchbox in your school bag seem to be really difficult for many young lads to master.

Interestingly, really significant life experiences can be forgotten quite easily as well. On a family holiday when my sons were in their 20s we were having a conversation about snakes and experiences that we had had around them. One of my sons had fallen asleep on a slope of grass at the front of our house one afternoon and had woken up with a tiger snake curled beside him. Now he remembers that experience very clearly.

The conversation followed with two of my sons trying to remind me of another experience that I had simply never heard of. The two youngest boys had been riding around a wetland when the oldest had ridden his bike straight over a snake. He had pulled up quickly and told the younger brother not to come but to ride his bike the other way around the track. Apparently, the younger brother ignored his older brother’s advice and tried to ‘fake out’ the snake, which at this stage was up in an attack pose hissing. He had then run around the snake, jumped on his brother’s bike and they got home. By the time they got home they had quite simply forgotten to share anything about the experience. This really intrigued me and made me wonder again how does the male brain manage its memory?

Early adolescence can see forgetfulness reach a new height due to the brain pruning that occurs quite naturally (for either gender!). Young lads 12-15 will lose football boots, school blazers and have been known to completely leave their backpack with their PC and phone in it on the school bus.

I clearly remember one of my sons at 15 had been given a brand-new wetsuit for his birthday. I had driven him 40 km to a beach to have a surf because he was so excited about his new wetsuit. When we finally got home I suggested he hang it up to dry. When he couldn’t find the wetsuit in the car I realised he had stepped out of his wet wetsuit at the beach, wrapped a towel around himself and jumped in the car — leaving his brand-new wetsuit still sitting on the sand. Again, I was fascinated how he could forget to put something he valued deeply into the car so he could use it again!

It seems having an inefficient memory continues into manhood for many men as well. A lot of men tell me they struggle to remember bin night — which is exactly the same night every week. They can forget where pots, casserole dishes and glasses go in the kitchen cupboard despite being shown many times. And I have had good men tell me how devastated they have been when they have forgotten important anniversaries. Interestingly some of these men said they remembered the anniversary in the morning and again at lunchtime and then somehow it had slipped their mind during the afternoon. They genuinely felt really bad about forgetting something so important because they genuinely loved the woman whose anniversary they shared.

So what is going on with the male memory?

Remember the usual disclaimer applies here – I am not talking about all boys and men nor all girls and women.

From an evolutionary perspective, gender differences were important for survival in caveman days. The males needed to be totally focused on defending and protecting the women and children, and this biological drive is still present in a significant number of our boys and men. The caveman also needed to be providing the main source of protein for dinner – like a deer. These biological drives encouraged an incredible single focus processing excellence, which was incredibly important at the time. This single focus has a lot to answer for in terms of memory. When hunting, men developed a superior spatial awareness that allowed them to find their way home. They also learned to communicate non-verbally to ensure successful hunting and tracking.

In those early kinship communities the women organised everything else other than defending, protecting and providing large protein sources. They were responsible for caring for the elderly, the sick, and all the children while searching for yams, berries and smaller sources of protein like lizards and birds.

Not only that, they were responsible for creating containers through weaving and moulding and for creating skins and furs to keep everyone warm. They also were mindful of the interplay of relationships to ensure that bloodlines remained pure and they had to remember things from a long time in the past. They also had to keep an eye on the changing landscape to realise when an environment needed to be changed because it was no longer sustainable for the community. They were the multitaskers and they needed to remember everything to ensure the safety and survival of that community.

Biologically, women’s memories needed to be much more comprehensive and efficient.  Dr Charles De Carli offers a hypothetical in saying that it can very well be a possibility that “Women may have developed skills and strategies over our evolutionary development to keep track of stuff that helps their memory that men just never acquired.”

There are truckloads of research, much of it conflicting, around gender differences and memory. Some psychologists have found significant sex differences in episodic memory, which is a long-term memory based on personal experiences that favours women and some of that explored the role of storytelling with emotion that tended to help women remember things better. This may explain why women seem to be able to remember things from a very long time ago. Some of the research shows that men tend to outperform women in remembering symbolic, non-linguistic information — like how to find their way home when they are out in nature.

Unplugging the memory challenges of our boys

As a passionate boy champion I thought it might be helpful to explore what I have discovered around why our boys (and some of our men) can be frustratingly forgetful and how we can help them remember better.

  1. Boys and men tend to need external experiences to help them create a sense of self-worth and value. This means there will be a strong — possibly unconscious — tendency to only concentrate and focus on things that will give them the success that they need to feel good about themselves. This may mean hitting a target, or winning a race or building something significant out of Lego. Wearing a hat, wiping their bottom or remembering to clean their teeth might be perceived to be irrelevant or unimportant and so they simply forget to do it. Maybe we could name this ‘selective attention’ rather than forgetfulness.
  2. Generally, the male gender has a wonderful sense of pragmatism. To keep stress levels low they like to do things that they succeed at and only if necessary. Wiping down the kitchen bench after making toast is something that is easy to forget when you are planning to come out soon to cook more toast and make more mess in the same place. Making your bed, cleaning your teeth and putting all your toys away might be forgotten because they simply don’t really matter too much to our boys because we are soon going to do the same thing all over again. It seems sensible to leave your bed unmade if you are just going to crawl back into it the next night. Why do my teeth need cleaning when I might get hungry and need to eat something soon and then my teeth will get dirty and I will need to clean them again? And why put my toys away because I’m going to get them out later and it’s easier to find what I want when they’re out rather them when they are all packed away?
  3. Boys are biologically wired to create dopamine which is a very ‘feel good’ neurochemical in the brain. The best way to make this wonderful neurochemical is by having fun most often through movement. I’m sure there are times that our boys forget things that aren’t going to be much fun and focus on the things that are. This is a possible explanation for why boys forget to wipe their bottoms or wash their hands because play is beckoning them outside and every second is wasted until they are back there. We know that boys will often not eat their lunch at school if it means losing more time at play. This may also explain why boys forget to do their chores. So maybe sometimes it is not so much about forgetfulness as boys prioritising the choices they make in their life about choosing happiness over more mundane and routine things. Maybe this is ‘selective attention’ again rather than forgetfulness.
  4. Single focus is the reality for many of our boys and often the single focus is ‘fun’. We know they are biologically wired to move more than many of our girls (partly biologically and partly physically) and so often when things require sitting down or being passive they will avoid or forget to do them. One of the reasons your son does not come back from the bedroom with his shoes is that he has seen something else far more interesting that has taken his attention. There is not a deliberate intention to frustrate his parents, he has just found something more engaging and is only capable of single focus. The retrieval of the shoes has been given a much lower priority and thus discarded. Remember the snake story I shared? Well by the time the boys had arrived home — they had probably already raced each other home, and were probably thirsty, could smell dinner cooking and so the focus on the snake story was now a long way down the list and it was quite simply forgotten.
  5. Research from Dr Allan Schore has shown that testosterone in the womb slows down brain development for boy babies. This delay in development continues in the early years of boys’ lives. This is another reason why boys can take longer to develop parts of their brain and why they can struggle to remember things as well as girls and why we might need to be more mindful of helping our boys remember better.
  6. Finally, boys may need more time to be able to recall things. The boy who couldn’t remember what happened at school on the way home will often chat about school at bath time or bed time.

So what can help boys remember better?

  • Start by having realistic expectations for our boys. There is no intention to forget stuff — it just happens.
  • Give sons non-verbal reminders like tapping your head if you want him to put his hat on or do the action of cleaning your teeth as you remind your son he needs to clean his teeth.
  • Visual cues can help as boys tend to have quite good visual skills: maybe in the toilet have a picture of a child washing their hands, or have a picture of a school bag on a hook you might like him to use for his school bag. Small post-it notes with a few words can be so helpful too – ‘Sports day today. xxxx’
  • Have three steps on the fridge for each morning — so when he forgets he can check. For example: 1. Eat breakfast 2. Brush teeth 3. Get dressed. Use the same guide for at least a year until it becomes a habit.
  • Avoid nagging and, worse still, shouting as boys feel really hurt and wounded for failing you and the stress makes them even more forgetful.
  • Connect in a gentle physical way when offering one small verbal reminder — ruffle their head, give them a hug or a tickle – “Teeth time matey.”
  • Try the quiet whisper when reminding.
  • Help them make lists and plans to avoid forgetting important things and stuff.
  • Encourage them and use specific task-focused praise when they remember well.
  • Use positive language — like “Remember to put your lunch box in your bag” rather than “Don’t forget your lunch box.”
  • Celebrate your son’s natural strengths — whatever they may be —spatial awareness, physical strength, problem-solving, ‘fixability’ skills, sensitive caring nature and pragmatism rather than focusing on his flaws.

Essentially a boy’s memory will improve gradually until adolescence if he is in a stable caring environment. Then the biologically driven brain changes around 12-15 means it will tend to get worse for a while before it improves as the final stage of the human brain, the pre-frontal cortex, completes in his 20s.

‘Selective attentiveness’ where boys tend to remember things that matter to them at that time and forget the boring or unexciting stuff including chores, homework and where stuff is — is just a reality that parents need to accept and work with. They are not being bad, or stupid or deliberately annoying — and shaming boys or criticising them won’t help them develop ways to remember better.

Let’s lighten up as sometimes confused mammas and help give gentle loving reminders to the boys and men in our lives as a sign of our capacity for unconditional love.

Mothering Our Boys: A Guide for Mums of Sons

Maggie shares her insights, her reflections, and (as always) her humour around mothering boys in this book that will help you be the mum your son needs you to be.

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