Making Memories that Matter

When my sons were at school, we got to the end of this particular term that was really challenging and busy, and I decided to take the four of them to a local café and buy them all hot chocolate sundaes to say, “well done”.

After all, their reports were good, no one had been suspended and there’d been no broken bones or stitches during the term (hallelujah!).

I didn’t realise how significant this small act would become. The boys loved it so much they asked if we could do it at the end of each school term.

What was interesting was that rather than getting really tired and crabby in those last weeks at the end of each term, I noticed the boys were counting down the days till the “end of term treat” with great excitement.

Indeed, when my older son moved away to university, he rang a few weeks before the end of the first school term to ask if we could wait until he came home before we went out for the end-of-school treat.

In creating this accidental family ritual, I gave my boys something special: a memory that mattered.

Building memories that last occur simply when we repeat significantly positive experiences.

That is why so many families return to the same campsite or holiday spot throughout childhood — it’s not just because they can’t think of anywhere else to go, but because memories are made from doing the same fun thing year after year.

I’m sure many of us have memories of bike riding around the campsite with a heap of kids that you only ever met at that time each year, swinging off the flying fox into the river, climbing trees, building cubbies, hunting for prawns in the estuary in the dark, playing spotlight or fox holes on the beach with lots of kids (and often quite a few dads), or playing on the swings from dawn till dusk.

Families who like to visit different places on their holidays can still lock in the same strong memories by taking their holiday rituals wherever they go.

My Dad had a habit on holidays of waking us up really early so that we could, “get a good day’s loafing in!”

Similarly there are so many mini rituals or fun habits that can help create the happy memories you want your child to have from their childhood. Rituals for when we leave, rituals for when we arrive, rituals for family film nights, rituals for play time outside in the garden, and even bath time and bedtime rituals.

These are simple things, aside from the wonderful opportunities for memory making that come with birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Halloween and any other cultural and religious celebrations that your family enjoys.

This is the stuff that builds positive memories that your child can draw on later in life as evidence that they had a fabulous childhood. This is also what children will draw on when they become parents.

Eric Jensen in his book, Enriching the Brain (2006), writes that memories are anchored much more deeply when there are strong emotions present. That is why powerful scary memories anchor so deeply in the brain.

Many adults who struggle to remember their childhood sometimes mistakenly think that maybe something awful happened, which the mind has suppressed to protect them.

More likely they have had a bland and quite normal childhood without an abundance of peak moments of suffering or joy.

Technically, in the brain there is a foundation or genetic system for joy but how it unfolds depends on the interaction of those genes with social experiences.

I know I am not alone in my concern that as our children (especially our young kids) become increasingly engaged in the world of screens — with iPads and tablets, hand-held game consoles, smart phones and computers just about everywhere we go — that these opportunities for visceral experiences of memory making are under threat.

Schools also play an important role in creating memories that matter. Whether it is school assembly items, performances, dress up days, fetes, sporting events or fun runs.

Different students will remember different things and so offering a wide smorgasbord of positive experiences is incredibly important.

Also, having exceptional teachers who know how to connect and make learning fun and meaningful – well they are gold – we never forget them and how they made us feel. School ceremonies, creeds and school songs are also memory pathways that can stay with us for life. The key is to have more positive memories than the opposite.

My challenge to all of us is to ponder and consider consciously how to build memories in childhood that are drowned in moments of profound joy and delight, so that children and grandchildren can remember them when they become boring adults.

Isn’t that worth remembering?

This article was originally published in Parenting Ideas magazine.