Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Children's Earliest Memories: A Narrative Study

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Children's Earliest Memories: A Narrative Study

Article excerpt

This article explores the concept of children's autobiographical memory that is evident from the age of four onwards. Recent findings on the construction of memories, the development of narrative ability and the impact of culture on memory are discussed in relation to an exploratory study of children's earliest memories. Although no conclusion could be made as to whether children's memories are co-constructed or spontaneous, findings show that earliest memories were of atypical events that had occurred in the child's life. Implications for learning and teaching of young children are included.


The narration of stories is part of the human condition. Narrative stories are mediums for remembering and communicating information, for preserving interpretations and the significance of experiences, and for finding meaning and purpose in life. Humans narrate stories not only to communicate to others, but also to make sense of their lives for themselves (Schank, 1990). This article studies children's narratives to investigate the development of autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memories of specific events are composed of interpretations of events that are extended in time and may involve multiple actors, and locations (Conway, 1986).

Autobiographical memories are not literal representations of events, because although considered to be true events, the memory is never exact in recall. It is, moreover, irrelevant to assess whether the memory is true or false, as its importance lies in the personal meaning it gives to the story of the narrator's life, rather than the accuracy of the recall. Thus autobiographical memories become the fabric of personal myth in that they form an integrated view of reality for the narrator, who strongly believes in them. Autobiographical memories are self-defining and contribute to the ultimate identity of the narrator (McAdams, 1991). In addition, autobiographical memories are long-lasting.

Ages for the onset of autobiographical memory vary from 3 years to 8 years, but although there are individual differences between children, the most usual age for the emergence of autobiographical memory is about 3 or 4 years old (Nelson, 1992). Individual differences could stem from rates of maturation or cognitive capacity. Prior to this age, children have what is termed infantile amnesia, which is an inability to recall events from the early years of life (Kotre, 1995). Between the ages of three and four, children's language development, and a sense of the self as being distinct from others, mark the beginning of autobiographical memories being formed. Furthermore, although autobiographical memories stem from the child's cognitive and language development, such memories are also shaped by the context and the culture in which the child lives.

Research has shown that the role of the adult in the development of autobiographical memory is important, as it is by talking with adults that children learn social and cultural narrative forms (Nelson, 1992). For example, the narrative style of white middle-class children in the United States demonstrates short, concise stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, while black working class children in the United States juxtapose anecdotes that are thematically linked. A further investigation found that European families narrate autobiographical memories more often than Korean families. It is believed, therefore, that autobiographical memories are a facet of Western culture and cognitive style (Engel, 1995). Nelson found that mothers who narrated autobiographical memories to their children were more likely to have children who narrated autobiographical memories. Fivush (1994) states that children with early development of autobiographical memory are more likely to be of higher social class, advanced language development, and female. Fivush states, moreover, that by investigating the ways in which adults structure conversations about the past with young children, a greater understanding of how children represent and understand their own experiences can be gained. …

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