“Toddlers remember better than you think”

 “Up until the 1980s, it was thought that babies and young toddlers lived in a perpetual present. … The paradigm of the perpetual present has now itself been forgotten. Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.

“The conventional wisdom for older children has been overturned, too. … Twenty years ago, a study of Walt Disney World—the ne plus ultra memorable experience—surprised everyone involved: Children who’d been at Disney when they were only 3 years old could recount detailed memories of it 18 months later. Evidence has piled up ever since.”                                                                                                           Nicholas Day, Slate Magazine[i]

Jacob, Loretta & Agnes Willems 1940

Jacob, Loretta & Agnes Willems, Dinuba 1940

I was born January 1, 1938. I am about two in this picture. My mother is eighteen years old, my father twenty-five. Dad bought the Navelencia farm the winter I turned two, late 1939 or early 1940. We lived on that farm only one year, moving away right around my third birthday in January 1941. The photo above must have been taken right around the time we moved to the farm.

An 8” x 10” hand-tinted copy in an ivory frame was displayed in the living room of all the houses we lived in. Mom was critical of the tinting. She said they didn’t get the color of her dress right. She was also critical about how she looked. She hated her hair. She’d just had her first permanent and said she hadn’t learned how to work with it, was embarrassed by the straight-out-of-the curlers curls in the front. My curls, too, are straight out of the curlers. Mom said she didn’t know back then that they were supposed to be brushed out then re-styled. Later photos show she learned how to do that, learned well.

I agree with Mom about the curlers, but I still love this picture. What I see when I look at it is a young woman who is pretty in spite of her hair, a young woman proud of her healthy, pretty little girl and handsome husband. And she had reason to be proud. She was only eighteen when this picture was taken, yet all of us look healthy and well cared for. Mom likely made the pink satin dress I was wearing, would have saved up the money to buy my patent leather roman sandals and pink socks.

Late in life, looking at this picture, Dad said my mother was the one who insisted on having this professional portrait made, made sure he was wearing his new suit and tie. I can understand why. This photo was evidence of her success as a wife and mother. Grey-tone 5”x7” copies were given to both sets of my grandparents. The image above was made from the one given to my Grandma and Grandpa Willems that came into my hands after their deaths.

I have no memory of the taking of this photo. My memories of Navelencia are summer memories, probably from the summer or early fall after the photo was taken. I would have been two and a half, moving toward my third birthday. They are only snippets of memory. I remember nothing at all of most of the life that took place on that farm—no memory of my mother or our house or the barn or my Uncle Frank, who lived in the room made out of the barn, or his bride Velma who came to share that barn-room with him. That I have any memories at all is remarkable, their reality something I’ve had to defend to people aware of the earlier theories about infant brain development Nicholas Day speaks about in the quotation that opened this blog post. Finding that article felt like vindication, a halleluiah moment. Here it was–vindication. I could now effectively refute the skeptics.

Research has shown that memory begins in infancy, but what makes early memories stick into adulthood, Day notes, has “less to do with the child than with the adults.” Children who have mothers who talk to them about the past, ask them questions and incorporate their answers into the larger narrative, “tend to have earlier and richer memories” than children whose mothers didn’t talk with them in this way: “When children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event.”

It wasn’t just my mother who talked with me in this way. My father and his brother Frank were story tellers, and they included me in the stories. And, as Day notes, story is important.” When children enter a story they “are learning how to organize memories in a narrative, and in doing so, they are learning the genre of memory. ‘As children learn those forms, their memories become more organized … And more organized memories are better retained over time.’”

 I was a ‘chatterbox’, an early and fluent talker. That early acquisition of language was also a factor in the retention of early memories. Memory precedes and is necessary for language, but, conversely, language facilitates memory. Without language the child cannot enter into a story, thus denied a narrative that helps organize their memories. My constant chatter must have gotten tiresome. That my mother and the other adults in my life had the patience to engage me in conversation–and not tune me–out was my great good fortune. I bless them. I wish all children could have that same good fortune.


[i] (Click here for full article) Nicholas Day writes about the science and history of infancy in his book Baby Meets World (2013).


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