Childhood amnesia is the inability of adults to retrieve episodic memories (memories of situations or events) before the age of two to four years. What do you remember about being two- or three-years-old? Anything at all?
Parents often reflect on their past when talking to me about their kids. I often hear things like “I never spoke to my parents like that” or “I never hit my parents.” But you know what – so many (most!) two-year-olds and even three-, four-, and five-year-olds say no, scream, cry, and even hit their parents. That is just what little kids do as they figure out their emotions and learn to self-regulate. It is part of their development.
Honestly, I’d be worried if a parent told me their child never said no to anything – it really is part of growing up!
Their brains are just not physically ready to to deal with emotions and aggression calmly. The part of the brain that controls impulses & self-regulation, the Prefrontal Cortex, is only fully developed around 25-years-old! That is why teenagers still make poor judgement calls and bad decisions. That means expecting them to be able to always avoid hitting or “talking back” is not only tough for them, we could be expecting the downright impossible!
(Of course, there are are always kids who are calm and teenagers who make good choices, but just because they can, it doesn’t mean it is appropriate to expect it from all of them. Also, just because they can control themselves sometimes, it doesn’t mean they will be able to all the time.)
To get back to my title question, what does our childhood amnesia mean for the children?
It means that as adults, we expect more than the kids can offer. We set them up for failure when we do that. If we leave a cookie on the table and tell our two-year-old not to eat it, we might as well be setting a trap – they will probably eat it.
It means that we see their behaviours as moral issues and are personally hurt by their actions because of that. But they are developmental issues, and our jobs as educators or parents is to give the children the tools to navigate these issues instead of punishing them for it.
It means that we are inflexible and authoritarian in our ways. We often teach kids to obey by making them fear punishments, but should be teaching them to be kind and patient because it is the right thing to do.
It means that we think the saying “they are just kids” is some sort of weak excuse for giving in to the kids’ demands. But they are just kids and that is a fact. Being flexible and compromising with them isn’t giving in or spoiling them – it is modeling fairness, and empathy, and understanding.
If we could remember our childhoods better, I have no doubt that we’d be a lot more understanding of our children’s emotions and behaviours.