Don’t Overestimate Memory

Don’t Overestimate Memory

Contrary to what some people assume, memory is not a matter of running a videotape in your head and then just rewinding it when you need to recall something. It is an extraordinarily complex process that involves decision-making, encoding, storage, and retrieval skills – skills that take many years to develop. This is why you can’t remember anything from when you were an infant or toddler, and it probably isn’t until the elementary school years that you begin having regular, detailed memories.

The preschool period, therefore, is a bit problematical. At this point, the skills are becoming functional, but they are still far from foolproof. And this is complicated by the fact that young children are rather egocentric, that is, mostly focused on themselves. Consequently, it is important for parents to be aware that their memory for things that are specifically about them will be a lot better than their generic memory.

For example, let’s say it is mid-February and you are talking to three- and four-year-olds about Presidents Day. You tell them that George Washington was the first president. The next day you ask them who the first president was and they don’t remember. But they can all tell you in great detail about every present they got for Christmas six weeks earlier.

It is critical to keep this in mind when talking to your young children about fire safety, stranger danger, and other important topics. Since they easily remember the trip to the zoo, the birthday party, etc., it is natural to assume they will remember what you’ve told them. But unfortunately there is a good chance they won’t. So during the preschool period, while instruction is appropriate and will ultimately be effective, it should not be considered a substitute for conscientious parental supervision.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project. He may be contacted via e-mail at