Reminiscing: Reasons to talk to your toddler about the past

Do you remember your first day of school? What about your first word, or your first step? The point when toddlers and young children start to create long-term memories is different from person to person, and there’s no telling when Baby’s long-term memories are going to start forming, but by talking to her about the past, you can help her build the mental framework she will need to support those long-term memories when they start to form.

The benefits of reminiscing

Talking to toddlers and young children about the past - their own past specifically, not the Big Bang, or wooly mammoths - helps them to develop autobiographical memories, or the way they think about their own lives. This includes building up their emotional knowledge by talking about the feelings associated with memories. Emotional knowledge is an important ingredient for helping toddlers to develop empathy, which leads to healthy socialization, as well as an understanding of her own feelings. 

Beyond that, reminiscing, and helping children build a mental picture of the past, can even help build narrative skills, or thinking of life in terms of a series of causes and effects - a series of interconnected stories. Strong narrative skills can help with later reading comprehension. 

Strategies for reminiscing

In studies that look at the way reminiscing affects children’s developing memories, children whose parents had been coached in styles of reminiscing that encourage memory tend to remember the past in more detail at an early age. Evidence suggests that quality of reminiscing may be more important than quantity. This coached reminiscing means talking about the past in a way that’s detailed, emotional, and collaborative. This is called elaborative reminiscing.

  • Detailed: Detailed reminiscing goes beyond talking about the fact that an event happened - it means talking about the process. “Remember when we went to the beach?” is a start, but “Remember how hot the sand at the beach was when you first took off your shoes?” starts at the beginning, “Remember how yummy our picnic lunch was - until the sand blew into it?” ties in specific events, and by the time you and Baby get to “Remember how cold the water was when the wave flew up and splashed you?” the memory is set in the context of the rest of the day.
  • Emotional: One of the biggest benefits of reminiscing is the way it starts to teach children to think about their futures in the context of their pasts. Children whose memories help them make connections to their pasts can get angry but then start to remember how lashing out in anger wasn’t helpful in the past. Children who are scared of something that’s happened before will eventually remember how they came out unharmed last time. Talking about the past in terms of emotional response helps to put memories in the right emotional context. “You looked a little scared of the waves, but you were still curious enough that you didn’t leave,” puts the memory of seeing the ocean into an emotional context, and puts words to feelings she might not have known how to describe before.
  • Collaborative: One of the most key ingredients in reminiscing with your toddler, though, is her participation. This comes both in the form of asking questions - “What did you think about that?” “And how did that make you feel?” - and by responding when she does chime in. If she remembers, “Cold,” that memory might guide what part of your beach-trip you talk about next.

Reminiscing might seem like an activity that only comes up when you’re around old friends, but you’re one of the oldest friends Baby has, and talking about the past with her is a great way to prepare her for the future.

  • Federica Artioli, Elaine Reese, Harlene Hayne. “Benchmarking the past: Children’s early memories and maternal reminiscing as a function of family structure.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 4(2): 136-143. Web. June 2015.
  • Robyn Fivush. “Maternal Reminiscing Style and Children’s Developing Understanding of Self and Emotion.” Clinical Social Work Journal. 35(1): 37-46. Web. March 2007.
  • Robyn Fivush, Katherine Nelson. “Parent-child reminiscing locates the self in the past.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 24: 235-251. Web. 2006.
  • Elaine Reese, Rhiannon Newcombe. “Training Mothers in Elaborative Reminiscing Enhances Children’s Autobiographical Memory and Narrative.” Child Development. 78(4): 1152-1170. Web. July/August 2007.
  • Karen Salmon, Elaine Reece. “The Benefits of Reminiscing with Young Children.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 25(4): 233-238. Web. August 10 2016.
  • Penny van Bergen, Karen Salmon. “The Association Between Parent-child Reminiscing and Children’s Emotion Knowledge.” New Zealand Journal of Psychology. 39(1): 51-56. Web. Nov. 1 2010.
Get the Ovia Parenting app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store