Memory Making 101

One of my more vivid memories is of the time my sister and I decided to swap bedrooms for a while. We’d moved everything else, and it was down to the furniture. My mom and I removed my bedding, the mattress and box spring, and were left with just the frame to disassemble. It was the bed frame I had always wanted — shiny white wrought iron, day bed style, with hearts. I loved that thing. However, over the course of the next hour and a half, I would begin to wish I had never laid eyes on it.

This was not a difficult task. As a matter of fact, no tools were even required. Literally, all we had to do was lift and pull the corresponding pieces apart. We lifted, pulled, tugged, shifted, angled, leaned, and did everything humanly possible to take this bed frame apart. It simply would not budge. We stood there, yanking and heaving and making no progress, all the while scratching our heads in utter and complete confusion. There were no screws, no hardware of any kind. What the heck was holding this dumb thing together? We were exasperated. After nearly ninety minutes, we were sweaty, breathing heavily and pretty out right ticked off. We were smart people! What we we missing?

Eventually, we were ready to run up the white flag. We could not figure out what else to try. So we looked at one another, shook our heads, and gave up. At the precise moment that we both let go of the frame, the FREAKING THING JUST FELL APART ON ITS OWN. We lost it. We collapsed on the floor, laughing hysterically, tears streaming. To this day, I don’t think either one of us has laughed as long and hard as we did that day. When one of us would calm down enough to catch a breath, the other would start cackling all over again. I remember how sore my stomach muscles were, and crying out, “Stop!  It hurts! Stop laughing!”

Why is this memory so much stronger than most of the others? Because in those moments, I felt something very deeply. I felt a strong and deep sense of frustration, racking my brain, helpless to figure out such a small, easy task. Then I swung to the other extreme, being overwhelmed with hilarity and disbelief, and utter exhaustion from prolonged laughter. And in both ways, I felt connected to my mom in that powerful way that can happen when you share an intense experience.

This experience did not alter the course of my life in any way. The regular routine of life resumed immediately afterward. It wasn’t even the details of the scenario that were especially extraordinary. It was the feelings. It is the FEELING of what happens that makes it stick. The more intensely you feel something, the more deeply that experience seems to burn itself into memory.

As a parenting coach, I get asked a lot of questions about how to go about the routines of family life. “How important is it that I serve a home-cooked meal every evening?” “Should we do devotions at bedtime or in the morning?” “Do we really need to take a week-long vacation every year?”

My response to these types of questions is generally this; do what works for your family. What your child is most likely to remember about family dinner is how he FELT. Was it a time of togetherness, when the family gathered and shared about their day or told jokes? Or was it a time of conflict or anxiety, with family members complaining and chastising one another? He is most likely to remember how he felt sitting at the table night after night, NOT whether the lasagna was homemade or store-bought! If grilling hotdogs or bringing in pizza once a week allows for the family to relax and enjoy a meal together, by all means, do it!

What your child is likely to remember about a family vacation is NOT how long it was, or how far away and exotic the location was. He WILL remember how he felt on that vacation. Did the family do some of the things he was interested in? Did that make him feel special and valued? Or did he never get a vote on where the family went for dinner or which activities were chosen? Did he feel ignored and unimportant?

It’s the feeling that stays with us, and it is that feeling that sears the details of an experience onto the brain like a tattoo. When it comes to making family memories, let’s truly not sweat the small stuff. Rather than spending the bulk of your time and energy on the details of how, what and where, I would like to propose a new question: “What does it feel like to be my kid during dinner time?” “What does it feel like to be my kid when we are away from home?” “What does it feel like to be my kid during the holidays?”

You get the picture. We all want to provide our kids with a childhood that they can look back fondly on and be thankful for. Make the best choices you can with the information you have, and then major in creating meaningful experiences, where they have the opportunity to feel deeply valued, appreciated, loved, and enjoyed!

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