449. Early Childhood Memories

A third grader recently spoke to me about something she remembered about first grade. She remembered that I spent one recess drawing a portrait of one of her friends. I remember it, too. I’m not sure, but I think she may have wished I’d drawn a portrait of her. But that’s not my main point. It surprised me that she remembered the incident at all. And it reminded me that early childhood memories, though often uncovered during adulthood through psychotherapy, are based on things that happen during early childhood – during the moments children live each day.
Some of us like to think we live every moment to the fullest, but I guess the truth is that we live some moments more fully than others. And what may be relatively insignificant moments to us may be pivotal moments to people we affect. Off-the-cuff comments we make may be just what others may need or not need to hear. Once, when I was teaching high school, I happened to notice what one boy had written in his notebook: “‘People are capable of great failure.’ – Mr. Blue” I had a dim memory of having said that, but it was in the context of a discussion of Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” and it’s not something I’d want to make its way into Quotations from Chairman Bob. I have no idea how much my off-the-cuff comments have affected the children I’ve taught, but I hope most of the comments that have had major effects have been good ones.
Children have not had as many things happen to them as we have. And they haven’t heard or seen as much as we have. So what they do experience, hear, or see is more likely to affect them. If we have negative experiences as adults, we
can file them in whatever negative experience files we keep in our minds. Most of us know that such things happen, and we don’t always have to make a big deal of it.
But children’s mental files aren’t as voluminous, and so children are more apt to keep information that we’ve assumed – sometimes hoped – would be ignored or thrown away. They remember what we say and do, even when we’re not necessarily thinking clearly about how our words and actions will affect them; some of our casual utterances and deeds become their early childhood memories, perhaps to be dug up later in psychotherapy.
I’ve already recommended, in a previous article, that you avoid thinking everything you say and do will become part of who your children and pupils are. Thinking like that can make you decide to just stay away from children altogether. I’ll stand by my recommendation, but I also recommend that you think, from time to time, about how your words and deeds are absorbed by children.

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