Elizabeth Mee Morrissey is a mother of three young children in West Cork. She earned her B.Sc. from Boston University and has been a primary school teacher since 2000.
I recently saw one of those cute little signs at The Hummingbird Gallery in Dunmanway that reads, ‘Please excuse the mess. The children are busy making memories.’ As a parent, I have always found that expression to be very sweet, not to mention a very accurate reflection on the typical state of our house. Yet beyond the sentiment, that simple little sign serves as a big reminder that as parents, we are helping to shape our children’s memories, and therefore their experience of the world, every day.
The Easter holidays are here and our kids are getting a well-deserved and much-needed break from the usual hustle and bustle for two full weeks. It’s a great time to relax and connect with them by getting stuck into a fun family project together, such as creating a scrapbook, a digital time capsule or a treasured memories craft. These projects can be done whatever our changeable Irish weather brings, and as a bonus, you’ll be helping your children to build an invaluable life skill at the same time.
What is memory?
For 30 years, my father worked as a police detective for the City of Philadelphia in the USA. After countless interviews with witnesses and victims and innumerable courtroom testimonies, he learned a thing or two about the human memory. He knew that no two people ever have identical recollections of events. In fact, it is not uncommon for witnesses and others testifying in court to change their stories unexpectedly, throwing a curve ball to the police officers and legal counsel involved.
We tend to think of our brains as super-efficient computers that record our life experiences in an objective and comprehensive way, filing them away in an orderly fashion so that we can easily access them later.
Yet today’s science confirms what my father experienced firsthand. According to the latest research, memory is not something we passively record like a video camera. Rather, it is a quality we actively construct. How we construct it has a massive impact on our daily lives. It informs the way we interpret the events and circumstances in our lives, influencing the decisions we make and the actions we take.
Why are memories so important?
Children love to look at old photos and videos of themselves as babies or toddlers, and they ask to hear the stories behind those images over and over again. Our memories are vitally important to our relationships. They contribute to and strengthen the bonds we have with others and deepen our connections to family and friends.
Yet nowhere are memories more important than in shaping our relationship with ourselves. Memories are more than stories we tell others to make them laugh, to boast or to share our innermost feelings. They are also the stories we tell ourselves which help us to define meaning and purpose in our lives.
Our memories help us to answer the questions, “Who am I?” and “What is my life all about?”
Our personal memories shape our beliefs. These beliefs influence how we feel and what we think, and therefore the actions we take. For example, if children can recall many fun birthday parties celebrated in their honour, these memories contribute to beliefs such as, “I am special, I am important, I am loved and I am worthy.” These children will tend to think, feel and act differently than children whose internal script says something like, “No one cares about me, I don’t matter and people do not celebrate or accept me.”
Children who have positive beliefs about themselves and the world develop resilience, self-esteem and tolerance because they views life and other people as generally friendly to them and their needs. When confronted with challenges, they can bounce back without internalising them or blaming themselves. In contrast, children with an overall negative belief system are more fragile, less confident and more vulnerable to peer pressure. When life’s problems arise, they reinforce beliefs like, “Bad things always happen to me,” and it may be difficult to move past them.
Developing Strong and Positive Personal Memories
Memory projects can be as many and varied as your own life experiences. If you are lucky enough to be going on holidays this Easter, take the opportunity to create a scrapbook. Collect items during your travels, such as theme park entry tickets, boarding passes, hotel brochures and kids’ menus from restaurants. With a glue stick, your own photos printed at the local chemist and an inexpensive Aisling scrapbook purchased from an art and craft shop, you’ll have a low-cost, handmade product the family can treasure for years. Many local discount shops stock stickers, as well as scrapbook accents and embellishments, which can add an extra special touch. Artefacts and photos act as memory triggers. Children strengthen their memory muscles by looking at them again and again over time. Older children may even practice journaling and add a few pages of narration to the scrapbook, describing their thoughts and feelings and recording all of the things they did during their trip.
You may prefer a polished, professional look to the make-and-do variety. If so, many websites such as www.snapfish.ie and www.photobox.ie can help you digitally to create and purchase photo books. More and more large retailers including Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and Boots are also offering this service, and products can be found at various price points.
Older children and high-tech fans can create slideshows using photos saved to a computer or even develop a digital time capsule. Again, the internet provides a wide variety of tools, from dedicated websites such as www.legacybuilder.com to programmes developed for tech giants like Apple and Google.
For the skilled craftsperson, hands-on projects abound. Follow a YouTube tutorial, and use bits of old baby clothes to sew together a memory quilt that can be cherished for years to come. Alternatively, purchase a shadow box, and use it to mount and display a small collection of precious possessions, such as a babygro, baby’s first pair of shoes, a favourite toy or holiday souvenirs.
The medium you choose is much less important than the autobiographical and collaborative nature of the project. Together, you and your child can decide what is important to you and what are the events, feelings and relationships you want to highlight. You may create a project that revolves around a special person in a child’s life, such as ‘My Granny and Me’, or one that documents achievements and experiences, such as school awards, important milestones, or sport and hobbies. Simply portraying both the exceptional (‘Fun with The Beast from the East’) and ordinary (‘Me in 2018’) aspects of life are still other avenues one can follow.
Like all of us, children really are the authors of their own life stories. By creating personal memories projects together, you consciously draw your child’s attention to all the blessings and benefits they enjoy, cultivating a sense of gratitude, and a recognition that they are unique and valuable individuals. On a practical level, such projects also help to de-clutter and spring clean. We can’t hang on to every photo, painting and toy, but by
selecting the most important or sentimental ones, we can capture a fleeting glimpse of a moment in time. Finally, these projects focus a child’s attention and stimulate the brain’s memory centres, enabling them to develop memory skills that will function well for them in both academic and social contexts.