Research has indicated that most people’s earliest memories, on average, date back to when they were 3-1/2 years old. Recent studies of children, however, suggest that our earliest memories are more likely to go back even further (Wang & Peterson, 2014). By contrast, research with adults suggests that people can remember early childhood memories back only to about age 6-to-6-1/2 (Wells, Morrison, & Conway, 2014). Researchers agree that few experiences before age 6 become lifelong memories.
What do our earliest memories tell us about ourselves or about our childhood? And do most people remember similar types of experiences from early childhood?
Early memories vary widely in content: Play activities, injuries, and transitions (such as moving or changing schools) can all become events remembered into adulthood (Peterson, Morris, Baker-Ward, & Flynn, 2013). What types of events persist into adult memory may well reflect characteristics of our childhood, as well representing what is integral to what matters to us. For example, Canadian children were more likely to remember early experiences of solitary play and individual-oriented transitions, while Chinese children were more likely to recall family and school interactions (Peterson, Wang, & Hou, 2009).
It is not yet clear why certain experiences are remembered for a lifetime, while so many more are not. The earliest childhood memories recalled by adults are often of emotional events. Although many such memories represent negatively emotional events, many also preserve the happy experiences of childhood (Howes, Siegel, & Brown, 1993). Certainly injuries, such as a playground accident resulting in a broken arm, often persist in adult memory. But also memorable are happy occasions such as an especially enjoyable holiday or time playing with friends on an outing.
Research suggests that, along with emotionality, the coherence of a memory contributes to its longevity in memory. The extent to which an experience is understood in a meaningful way affects the likelihood that it will be incorporated into the permanent repertoire of the events of our life. One young woman recalled a vivid memory of an experience at preschool when she was 3 or 4: A man in a business suit came to talk to the class. As he spoke, he slowly changed clothing, adding piece by piece of his Native American garb until he stood before them as a chief in full Onondaga dress. He made the point of the lesson clear, reminding them that he was the same man dressed in either outfit. As an adult, the woman explained that this impressive childhood memory fostered her appreciation of diversity and inspired her work as an activist for human rights.
The totality of our autobiographical memories mirrors not just the fabric of our lives, but also the fabric of who we have become. Just as early memories reflect the influence of our cultural context, they can also reflect the impact of the type of childhood we enjoyed. Experiences are not just what happen to us, they are the raw material we use in shaping our identity, our self. The person we become can think about the events that shaped us, reevaluate them, and choose how to respond to them. We are not prisoners of our past; we can retain control over how we decide to use aspects of our past in shaping who we want to be and to become.
The childhood memories we choose to hold on to reveal aspects of what we consider important. Those memories don’t inform others about who we are. Someone who recalls childhood abuse cannot be judged by others as “victim,” “abused,” “abuser,” or “survivor.” How that individual understands the meaning of those experiences contributes to their sense of self. The memories-as-processed are integrated into the evolving, dynamic personhood of the individual who retains and interprets life’s happenings.
We didn’t get to choose the childhood we were given, but we can choose what to do with the stuff of our childhood memories.
Batcho, K. I. (2012). Childhood happiness: More than just child’s play. Psychology Today.
Batcho, K. I., Nave, A. M., & DaRin, M. L. (2011). A retrospective survey of childhood experiences. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, pp. 531-545.
Demiray, B., & Bluck, S. (2011). The relation of the conceptual self to recent and distant autobiographical memories. Memory, 19, pp. 975-992.
Howes, M., Siegel, M., & Brown, F. (1993). Early childhood memories: Accuracy and affect. Cognition, 47, pp. 95-119.
Peterson, C., Morris, G., Baker-Ward, L., & Flynn, S. (2013). Predicting which childhood memories persist: Contributions of memory characteristics. Developmental Psychology, 50, pp. 439-448.
Peterson, C., Wang, Q., & Hou, Y. (2009). “When I was little”: Childhood recollections in Chinese and European Canadian grade school children. Child Development, 80, pp. 506-518.
Wang, Q., & Peterson, C. (2014). Your earliest memory may be earlier than you think: Prospective studies of children’s dating of earliest childhood memories Developmental Psychology, 50, pp. 1680-1686.
Wells, C., Morrison, C. M., & Conway, M. A. (2014). Adult recollections of childhood memories: What details can be recalled? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67, pp. 1249-1261.