Yesterday was one of those perfect late summer days at the local state park and beach. The sun was bright. The water was cool. Families from surrounding towns had come and set up their “camps” for the day. A beach umbrella or pop up canopy or just a spread out towel or two marked their spots. The air was permeated with smells of sunscreen and charcoal.
Kids, being kids, joined in each other’s games. Adults, knee-deep in water shared comments and jokes with each other while they watched over the toddler set. Older kids were building sand castles or splashing in the water with their dads or moms. “Marco!” “Polo!” One group of preteens was playfully frustrating the kid who was “it”. There wasn’t a cell phone or tablet in sight — except for one exasperated teenager who was sitting on a bench far from his family, huddled over his smartphone, trying to get reception where there isn’t any. Typical. (I was delighted to later see him join in a pick-up volleyball game.)
The parents who brought their families for a day at the beach were probably only looking for a way to cool off and have some fun on a Saturday. Most likely they were unaware that they were also doing one of the most important jobs of parenting — making positive memories. Yes, making them.
Positive Family Memories Are Protective
Memories happen regardless of what we do. Negative experiences have a particular and lasting power. But parents can counteract that power by attending to the creation of positive memories. During times of stress, those memories help our children and teens remember that things aren’t always challenging or just plain awful. As adults those same positive childhood memories will help them weather the inevitable storms of life.
Research proves it. People who have a store of positive memories from childhood are generally happier and healthier, have better cognitive skills and are more tolerant of others. They are less likely to develop a mood disorder and are generally more optimistic and more able to cope with stress. Researchers have even found that young children who have had positive experiences with those who love them may develop a larger hippocampus, the brain region important for learning, memory and stress responses.
By regularly depositing happy, positive memories into our kids’ memory banks, we can ensure that there will be healthy dividends that will last for life.
5 Ways to Make Happy Family Memories
- Notice and highlight positive attributes and behaviors: There are plenty of opportunities to correct, reprimand or discipline a child or teen. If a child is to be emotionally healthy and strong, those times need to be over-balanced with positive comments from those who love them. Notice when they have made their best effort and when they have been kind or generous or forgiving. Highlight the times that they share. Show interest in what they are interested in. Paying attention to the positives creates a family atmosphere that nurtures our children’s resilience and shows them how to be a positive force in the world.
- Play with your kids: Do whatever you like to do that makes everyone laugh and enjoy themselves. Make that fort with the sofa cushions. Get on the floor and be goofy. Boogie in the kitchen. Go out in the rain and splash in the puddles. When you read to them, make funny voices for characters in the stories. Do such things regularly and often. Happy times with their parents build kids’ confidence and feelings of self-worth.
- Make a big deal about little things: Your child sees a bug. Is it just a bug? Or is it a BUG? If you walk by, it’s not memorable. But if you stop to look at it together, comment on how many legs it has, try to get it to hop on a stick, wonder aloud whether it has a family, etc. — well, now it’s a memorable event. To a growing child, there are new and important things happening every day. It’s up to us to notice and to share in their excitement.
- Go on adventures: Unusual adventures tend to stand out in people’s memories. That doesn’t mean you have to spend tons of money or go somewhere special (though, if you can afford it now and then, that’s fun too). If done with a light heart and a sense of adventure, almost any activity can become memorable. One mom I know takes her kids with her to do grocery shopping. Each week, one of the kids gets to choose a food that no one in the family has ever eaten before. When they get home, they figure out how to cook it and try it. All this is done in the spirit of adventure and fun. I like to imagine they will do the same thing with their kids some day.
- Take time every night to be grateful: It’s too easy to take the positive things that happen every day for granted. A study has shown that people who take the time before bed to write down 3 things for which they are grateful are more optimistic, resilient and emotionally healthy. Create a family journal where each member writes down something that happened during the day that made them feel glad or grateful. The journal helps everyone in the family keep things in perspective.
Many years after one family had started this family ritual, one of their teens had a day when he was certain that everything about life was “terrible.” His mom said, “Go back and read our journal. Your life is in there too.” It didn’t make all his angst go away, but it did remind him that there was more to his life than the immediate problems.