What Will Your Children Remember About You?

The most memorable childhood memories reflect the child-parent bond.

Posted Jun 18, 2015

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Of all the childhood experiences we have had with our parents, which memories do we carry into adulthood?  Parents are under the pressure of meeting their children’s nutritional, medical, educational, emotional, and social needs.  The responsibility of raising a child can be daunting.  Striving to provide the necessities, parents can overlook deeper questions of purpose and meaning.  What will make the most important difference in the lives of our children?  One way of assessing the future impact of our efforts is to consider what people remember best about their childhood relationships with their parents.  It is not surprising that we remember the big-ticket items, like trips to Europe, Mediterranean cruises, and Disney vacations.  But are such events the ones that make the most important impact on us?

The most memorable childhood experiences reflect critical qualities of the relationship formed between child and parent.  Relationships develop over time as products of the ordinary interactions that become special by virtue of their ordinariness.  When extraordinary experiences take on life changing attributes, it is often because they culminate from or reveal the meaning of the less dramatic interactions that comprise a life together.  In a study of autobiographical memories, one young woman fondly recalled going to baseball and hockey games with her father—memories so lasting that the smell of popcorn and grass still revive them.  What made such activities special was that they were part of the fabric of the father-daughter bond:  “It was a me and Dad thing.”  One young man recalled hiking with his dad, describing “feelings of togetherness and no one else to worry about or bother us.”

In a world of competing obligations, it can be easy to forget the need a child has to feel special.  What activity fills the time together is less important than the fact that the time spent was spent together.  Another young man recounted the thrill he experienced as an eight-year-old of being allowed to watch the World Cup late into the night with his dad.  Even though their team lost, he remembered that experience as very special, saying, “I’ve never felt happier in one night.”  It wasn’t the game or the outcome that made the event so important; it was the boy’s understanding that it demonstrated his treasured bond with his father:  “My dad and I at the end slept on the couch with the TV on for the entire night.”  One woman described how every birthday her father bought her an angel displaying her age.  She explained how meaningful the custom was to her “because it was something special between my dad and I.”  Knowing the birthday angel series ends at 21, she could not bear to open the last box, remarking, “It’s still wrapped up sitting on my dresser.”  Sometimes the activity is quite distinctive, such as building a tree house together; often, though, it is as commonplace as playing catch, getting ice cream, or going to lunch after a music lesson or sports practice. 

We might wonder how “ordinary” can trump the extravagant in memorability and lasting value.  A child develops trust when he or she comes to know that Dad can be relied on.  The very absence of being “flashy” reflects the stability of a relationship that can be counted on.  As one young adult recalled about growing up:  “We were always together at holidays, camping, ice skating, or just making forts and tree houses.”  It’s the “always together” that conveys the knowledge that a meaningful relationship is one that lasts by virtue of its being part of ordinary life.  The lasting impact of such experiences is clear in the memories carried into adulthood.  Away from home and exploring independence, one college student remembered going to eat with her dad after the movies, and she highlighted the lasting value of those times.

We remember the difficult times as well as the happy ones.  Not all memories of childhood reflect romanticized ideal experiences.  Many illustrate how we archive adverse events such as job loss, accidents, illness and death.  Even during the most difficult of circumstances, parents have the opportunity to give their child the most important gifts—the assurance they are loved, the wisdom to appreciate what is most valuable, a model for coping with adversity with dignity, and understanding that suffering can be meaningful when endured as part of living for loved ones.  One young woman described how devastating it was to learn of her father’s diagnosis with a terminal illness.  She reflected on how her father’s struggle became the family’s challenge and made her the person she is today:  “It made me appreciate every day and showed me, and my family, to never give up and to believe you can do the impossible. . . . it showed me how strong I am and can be.”

We remember enjoying good times and surviving hard times with our parents.  Some of the most memorable experiences are the times we were encouraged, comforted, and offered advice.   Moms and dads often express their support in different ways.  While moms might comfort a child with a hug or a special meal, dads are often remembered for their pragmatic approach to acceptance and moving on.  One young man remembered wanting to give up after being cut from baseball in junior high.  Convinced by his father to try out the next year, he learned more than how to improve his athletic skills:  “It taught me a lot about life and not to give up on a dream. . . . The main goal I learned was to continue to work after a defeat.”  Reflecting on how her dad had coped with loss, one woman observed:  “This event made me realize that things can happen without warning.  It made me think about my life and how I needed to put my mind to things and do what was going to make me happy because at any moment it could be changed.”  Having survived a medical emergency, one man recounted his father’s advice:  “That’s why we get up in the morning; to see what the new day has in store.”

While memories range from the comical to the devastating, those of the greatest lasting value center on how the parent-child relationship contributes to who we become and to our sense of purpose and meaning.  As one young man reflected on the impact of his father’s death:  “It helps me think when things get bad that I have been through much worse.  And it also gives me a reason to live life to the fullest to make my family proud, especially because we have the same name. . . . It gives me a sense of identity.”  It might well be that your children know they are loved, even though you don’t tell them you love them.  And your children might know you are proud of them, even though you never tell them you are.  But if you do say, “I love you, “ and “I’m proud of you,” those words will be among their most powerful and most meaningful lasting memories.

Further reading

Batcho, K. I.  (2015, April 4).  What your oldest memories reveal about you.  Psychology Today.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201504/what-your-oldest-memories-reveal-about-you 

Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Childhood happiness:  More than just child’s play.  Psychology Today.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201201/childhood-happiness-more-just-childs-play

Batcho, K. I., Nave, A. M., & DaRin, M. L.  (2011).  A retrospective survey of childhood experiences.  Journal of Happiness Studies, 12(4), 531-545.

Batcho, K. I.  (2006).  What comes to mind in nostalgic reminiscence?  Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences.  Honolulu:  University of Hawaii.

Batcho, K. I.  (2002).  Nostalgia and reminiscence.  Proceedings of the Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences.  Honolulu:  University of Hawaii.