‘Remember when we…?’ Why sharing memories is soul food

Sharing stories around the dinner table fosters greater self-esteem and resilience in young people. Howard Chalkley, CC BY-NC-ND

Families and friends share memories all the time; “You’ll never guess…”, “How was your day?”, and “Do you remember when…” are rich daily fodder.

Sharing memories is not only a good way to debrief and reminisce, we’re beginning to realise the process plays an important role in children’s psychological development and protects our memories as we advance in age.

Telling stories draws us together

We share memories of the past for many reasons. By telling a sad or difficult story – perhaps a fond memory of someone we have lost since last Christmas – we strengthen shared connections, offer sympathy and elicit support.

By telling a funny or embarrassing story – perhaps the time the dog stole the Christmas ham – we share feelings of joy or recognition of difficulties overcome, large or small. By sharing similar or not-so-similar experiences, we empathise with and understand one another better.

Talking about the past also helps create and maintain our individual and shared identities. We know who we are – whether as individuals, groups or communities – because our memories provide a database of evidence for events we have experienced and what they mean to us.

Even when some people missed out on an event, sharing a memory of it can shape their identity. Developmental psychologist Robyn Fivush and her team demonstrated this when they asked American adolescents to recount “intergenerational” stories: events from their parents’ lives they learnt via memories shared within the family, often around the dinner table.

Fivush found that the adolescents she tested could easily retell many of their parents’ memory stories. Most importantly, they made strong connections between these second-hand family memories and their own developing sense of identity: “my dad played soccer when he was young, so that got me started”.

Children who showed these kinds of family memory-self identity connections reported higher levels of well-being.

Teaching children how to remember

For young children, telling memory stories teaches them how to remember. From as young as two years of age children begin to show signs of autobiographical memory: memories of themselves and their lives.

Although these earliest memories often are fleeting (it is not until our third or fourth birthday that we start forming memories that last into adulthood), they are important because they show that children are learning how to be a rememberer.

Research by developmental psychologists consistently shows that the way parents and others talk to young children about the past is crucial for their memory development.

One of the best ways is to use what we call a “high elaborative” style. This involves prompting the child’s own contributions with open-ended questions (who, what, why, how) and extending on and adding structure to the child’s sometimes limited responses. Together, the parent and child can then jointly tell a memory story that is rich, full and comprehensible.

Children whose parents use this elaborative reminiscing style subsequently show stronger and more detailed memories. sean dreilinger/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Consider this example from one of our studies where a mother and her four-year-old son reminisce about a favourite Christmas ritual:

Mother: … and you and Daddy put the Christmas tree up together, and then you put on decorations! What decorations did you put on?

Child: Um… the Christmas balls!

Mother: That’s right! Daddy bought Christmas balls and stars to hang on the tree. What colours were they?

Child: Red and gold.

Mother: Red and gold. Pretty red balls, and gold stars.

Child: And there was the paper circles too.

Notice how the mother guides the progress of her son’s recollections. She is mindful too of letting him contribute as much as he is able, scaffolding his memories with appropriate, open-ended and informative cues. She also reinforces and praises his contributions.

Not surprisingly, children whose parents use this elaborative reminiscing style subsequently show stronger and more detailed memories of their own past experiences.

Preschool children who are exposed to this style of reminiscing also develop stronger comprehension, vocabulary and literacy skills. And because we tend to remember and talk about emotionally meaningful events – events that make us happy, sad, scared – elaborative reminiscing helps children understand and learn to navigate difficult emotions and emotional memories.

These early practices have long-term consequences. Older children whose families narrate and discuss emotion-rich stories around the dinner table report higher levels of self-esteem and show greater resilience when faced with adversity.

It’s fine to disagree

Conversations about the past often require some degree of negotiation. Many studies highlight the value of collaborating in recall. That is, giving everyone a voice rather than letting one narrator dominate; particularly one voice that narrates other people’s memories as well as their own.

But what if someone seems to be telling the memory wrong? You’ve probably experienced the frustration of a brother, sister or cousin down the other end of the Christmas table mixing up the details of an event you both experienced. Or worse yet, claiming and recalling a childhood experience that you know happened to you and not to them.

It’s fine to disagree so long as everyone gets a voice. Evgeni Zotov/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

With young children still learning to remember, contradicting or ignoring their memory contributions – even if they contain source errors or inaccuracies – can shut the conversation down and discourage joint remembering.

But as we get older, we realise that others may have a different perspective on events. We realise that 100% accuracy is not the only or even the most important goal of remembering. As adults, disagreements about the past may in fact be a sign of a robust remembering system.

Scaffolding memory as we age

Sharing memories may also “scaffold” or support memory as we age. In a study just published, we first asked older adult couples (aged 60 to 88 years old) to individually remember various events experienced with their spouse over the past five years. All had been married for over 50 years, making them long-term, intimate life and memory partners.

One week later, we asked half of the couples to talk in detail with their spouse about their events and half to talk in detail with just the experimenter.

Compared with young adults, older adults working alone typically find it difficult to recall autobiographical memories in great detail. But when our older couples remembered with their spouse their memory stories were more detailed than the stories of couples who remembered alone.

Although collaboration did not lead young couples (aged 26 to 42 years old) to remember more, those who reported closer relationships with their spouse tended to recall more details of events shared with that spouse, even when they remembered alone. In other words, at this earlier stage of life, shared experiences and memories might primarily be serving intimacy and identity goals.

For older couples who have invested in strong, intimate relationships, they increasingly might need and look for external memory scaffolding as their internal memory abilities decline. These older couples may then start to reap the cognitive benefits of what they sowed with their partner, families and friends in a long life of living and remembering together.

If you have no immediate kin close by or close, do not despair. This research shows that it is how we talk about the past with loved ones that counts, not simply the biology of who we talk to. So this Christmas, come together with your “families”, whoever they are, and share one of the greatest, uniquely human, gifts of all: the gift of memory stories.