As we celebrated my granddaughter’s third birthday this summer, I made the following rough calculation: I’d trekked from my home in New Jersey to her New York City apartment roughly 150 times to provide once-a-week day care, plus other times as needed.
I had taken Bartola (a family nickname borrowed from former New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon) to a toddler music class. We’d spent an hour or two at the park every Thursday if it wasn’t a) raining or b) over 92 degrees or c) below 20.
I refer to our time together as Bubbe Days, using the Yiddish for grandmother.
We’d sung, read, strolled, shared meals, exchanged viruses, occasionally squabbled, spent days each summer at the beach, played and played some more — the whole grandparenting gamut.
And she will remember virtually none of it.
Psychologists I’ve been talking to about children and “autobiographical memory” — the recall of specific events of personal relevance — tell me that we retain very little of what happened before we turn 3. Childhood amnesia, Freud called it.
“Young children form memories early in life,” explained Patricia Bauer, a cognitive developmental psychologist at Emory University. “But they forget them so quickly, more quickly than adults, that they don’t hold onto them.”
When we think about legacy, what we leave behind as grandparents, probably values top the list: We hope we will have transmitted lessons about kindness, justice, strength and confidence, the boundless nature of love.
But we want to pass along more concrete things, too. I’ve called dibs on regularly escorting Bartola to theater performances, something I relish myself. We’ll probably start soon with the fine children’s theater available around New York City and, over the years, progress to more demanding fare.
If she takes to it, we’ll have something she may deign to do with Bubbe when she’s 13 and I’m 80.
Other grandparents have their own plans. When I asked around, I heard about efforts to encourage a love of books and reading, of singing and music. Grandparents draw and paint and plan museum visits with grandkids they hope will learn to cherish art.
Happily for us, children’s memories do improve.
“They gradually strengthen from age 2 to 8,” said Nora Newcombe, a cognitive and developmental psychologist at the Temple University Infant and Child Lab. “They’re more detailed. They last longer.”
Their verbal ability increases, too, allowing for fuller accounts. Four-year-olds can relate relatively rudimentary versions of an event. Ask the same children when they’re 6, and “if they remember the event — the big if — they can tell you more about it,” Bauer said.
We can help the process along by the way we talk with our grandkids about shared experiences. What psychologists call a “high elaborative style,” using lots of details and emphasizing that an event felt emotionally significant, helps cement memories.
If I want Bartola, a fourth-generation beach lover, to recall summers on Cape Cod, the experts told me I should go beyond, “Remember when we went to the beach?” I should be describing the gulls overhead, that game where we buried her feet, the hermit crabs scuttling through tidal pools.
I should talk, in particular, about how much we liked spending time together at the beach and look forward to it again next summer.
“You’re co-constructing a shared history, and you can do it over the phone or on FaceTime,” Bauer said. “The secret is involving the child in the importance of it, to her and to you and to both of you together. Reflecting on its meaning, affirming that it matters.”
Grandparents could take this a step further, suggested Andrew Meltzoff, director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. Cognitive scientists know that so-called “distributed learning,” repeatedly returning to an idea or an experience, strengthens children’s recollections.
“The child’s brain likes to encounter something, absorb it, and then re-encounter it,” Meltzoff told me. “It’s a powerful way to establish long-term memory.”
Thus, at the zoo with your grandchild, you comment on the cool giraffe. On the ride home, you talk about the giraffe. Back home, it’s “Tell Mommy about that giraffe we saw!” Later, on the phone or via Skype, you talk about giraffes using the same memorable words and phrases.
Meltzoff likes the idea of assembling photos of a visit or event — some taken by the child herself, ideally — into a digital or paper scrapbook. That provides a chronological, pictorial narrative that parents, reusing the same distinctive language, and children can repeatedly look at together.
“It becomes a lasting, tangible record,” he said. “Human beings remember coherent narratives very well.”
I’m not making a scrapbook, but I think a lot about children and memory. The average age for an American to become a grandparent is 50, but it’s not uncommon for it to be much older. Many of us reproduce at later ages and recognize that we may not see our beloveds become adults.
If I’m lucky, I might attend Bartola’s high school graduation; any milestone beyond that is questionable.
But I do want her to remember me, not specific events so much as my presence. I want her to know I helped care for her, comfort her and celebrate her. That I was there, a part of her life, and loved her ferociously.