Why Big Folks Have Trouble Remembering Stuff About Being Little Folks (But Why it Still Causes Them Problems)

What do you recall about your childhood? I don’t remember much about mine. Snatches of this, hints of that. I am fifty-two. My sister is a year and a half older. When we talk about “those magical childhood days,” we often find that we remember them quite differently (including who was Mom’s favorite). Who’s right? Seems to me that I am. She always pulls the “age card.” “You’re too young to remember.” It can really make me angry. Problem is, she is probably right–at least in some cases. Childhood memory is a bit of a mystery, or maybe I should say, forgetting of childhood events is the real mystery.

There is a name for this forgetting phenomenon. It is usually termed childhood amnesia. It appears to be a robust effect that is well established [J.M. Fitzgerald, A Developmental Account of Early Childhood Amnesia. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 152(2)]. It appears that the period of childhood amnesia extends from birth to age three or four–sometimes its can even extend to age 6 or 7. Referring to that time period at a later age, children and adults do show the “snatches” of memory that I have experienced, but they seem to take all of the “snatches” and “snippets” and form a “conglomerate memory” blending many things together and embellishing and subtracting from actual events– as adults present at the time of the original event occurrence can attest.

Newcombe et al [Remembering Early Childhood: How Much, How, and Why or (Why Not). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(2)] affirm that the phenomenon of Childhood amnesia is real, but that people continue to be able to recall parts of their lives from age two to five, however in much less detail and accuracy than from later periods. Implicit memories may be present, even if explicit ones are not. As we shall see, this may have some relevance for emotional content of memory, even if facts are sketchy. Lastly, Newcombe et al conclude that the autobiographical content of early memories may be missing. I would add that, even if they seem to be present, they might not be veridical.

Now, in the midst of this, I must hasten to say that research has continued to strengthen the case for a reasonably robust memory in toddlers. It seems to persist for days or weeks. So, that being the case, and taking, say age five as the “memory pick up point,” we are left with a mystery attested to by Eacott [Memory for the Events of Early Childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(2)]. There have been many answers proposed from many theoretical perspectives to explain the “great forgetting.” Nevertheless, as of yet, no truly satisfactory consensus has been reached. One might say it is a mystery.

At any rate, I have been pondering a few real (shall we say “cult??”) classics from the late 60’s and early 70’s, namely Berne’s, Games People Play, Harris’, I’m OK- You’re OK, and Steiner’s, Scripts People Live. As I’m sure the fifty-ish+ crowd will recall, these are all classics of transactional analysis. Harris offered the most “pop view.” The others were more serious attempts. Of course, TA didn’t just “die out” in 1972 or so (just search the web!). It has long ago outgrown its moniker as a “pop psychology”–see for example TA for Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Stewart and Joines, 1987, Lifespace Publishing. I think TA offers some useful insights here.

The basic notion is that we all have an inner Parent, Child, and Adult. The Parent sounds and does just like our parents. And it offers the same injunctions–don’t’s, but of course we are offered plenty of do’s as well. The Parent includes other parenting figures as well. Of course the Parent isn’t necessarily BAD. If that were the case, there would be little hope of socialization, and we might all be a bunch of criminals. However, the Parent can offer up a hefty dose of guilt and pain and leave us feeling not “good enough.” The Adult in each of us takes in the data from our world, the data from the Parent, and the data from our either quilt ridden or more free wheeling Child and tries to make sense of the world–deciding which data is correct and which is unhelpful or simply wrong.

As Steiner points out, we use all of this and, either in early childhood, or at least by early adolescence, form a script for our lives. It may be one that tells us we are successful. It may be the script of “The Lonely Loser.” It may be a helpful script, or a harmful one; the point is that we will ever try to live it out, because it helps us make sense of our world (unless there is a conscious effort to change it and a bunch of work to do so–TA teaches that we can always change our script).

We also choose some basic life position, such as “I’m OK and You’re OK.” Harris, borrowing Adler’s notion of a universal inferiority complex feels that, no matter how “good” our parenting, we all emerge from early childhood with a life position of “I’m NOT OK and You’re OK.” I believe that Berne and Steiner might argue that one. The gist of it all, however, is that we have “an inner voice” that we may not identify as the Parent or the Child, a position, perhaps I’m NOT OK, and a life script with a beginning, middle and ending, written long ago to make sense out of life. It is doubtful that we recognize these things unless they are pointed out to us and we think about them.

Cowan and Davidson in Salient Childhood Memories [Journal of Genetic Psychology (145) First Half] point out that when adults are asked to produce their earliest memory, the memories tend to be largely unhappy ones. Not all researchers have found this effect, however the study appears to be well done and carefully analyzed. Acklin et al [Predicting Depression Using Earliest Childhood Memories. Journal of Personality Assessment (53(1)], report that adults recounting earliest memories involving deprivation, loss of control, poor human interactions–just plain negative stuff–were more likely to be depressed as adults.

You may wonder why a writer about fundamentalism is interested in all of this. As a child I attended a Child Evangelism Fellowship Bible Club. It was full of five to nine- year olds. Every week, we sang songs, did crafts, all kinds of fun stuff. Then they got out the heavy guns. We were sinners and God had a place for sinners. We were all going to hell. If we didn’t know what that was, well they made sure they told us. What impact does it have on a six- year old to be told that s/he is so bad s/he is worthy of hell? A five- year old? If fundamentalist big people told this to five and six- year olds, do you think they did any less with four- year olds? You see, now we are somewhere in that zone of childhood amnesia. At this age the Adult within the child does not have the cognitive capacity to sort through the input they are receiving.

I think of the writings of James Dobson in the 1970’s and 80’s (before he toned it down a bit for his newspaper column). I recall Larry Christensen’s, The Christian Family, published in the early 1970’s–the child raising bible when I was a fundamentalist. I well remember their advice about spanking and “breaking the will of the child.” In fact, I often reflect on all of the hierarchal authoritarian parenting/family schemes set forth by fundamentalist Christians and all of the books on Child rearing in fundamentalist/evangelical bookstores, and I am concerned. I remember being a Jesus Freak in the early 1970’s (as part of the Jesus Movement) and seeing two and three- year olds spanked. I recall one father who, as part of the ritual, even made his two- year old bring him the paddle. When the boy was two, every night, the parents would tell him a bedtime story about “going to hell.” Finally, one night, the child came “unglued” and began screaming that he didn’t want to go to hell. His dad said, “The good news, Bobby, is that you don’t have to, if you accept Jesus.” The church was all-abuzz! “Bobby got saved that night!” It became a real model and point of celebration for the church. What a clever and loving father and mother! After all, the boy was saved and only two- years old!

The TA folks say that the basic life position and script are pretty well written by five, six, seven or so. The childhood amnesia folks tell us that we can’t recall why we wrote it. The personality researchers remind us that we hang on to the “bad memories”–even if we don’t have them quite right and they cause us problems later–depression, anxiety, and (from a TA perspective) a likelihood of defeatist scripts. And the fundamentalist “child development experts?” Well, they help ensure our kids will write dysfunctional scripts through “hellfire,” beatings, and confused love. There must be a better way.

James Alexander, Ph.D. is a professor of elementary education and a minister. Chapters of his new book on fundamentalism, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist, may be read at

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