The prominent argument favoring such techniques as crying-it-out is that our babies won’t remember it anyway. But just because we can’t visualize a memory from our earliest years, doesn’t mean our brains have forgotten the event.
My earliest memory is pulling out the bottom drawer of the built-in shelves in the yellow kitchen of my childhood home, and stepping onto the edge of the drawer so that I was tall enough to watch my mom wash dishes in the kitchen sink. Based on a surge of comfortable emotions that accompany this memory, I get the sense that this must have been a daily habit of mine at that age — probably about three or four-years-old.
That’s the age when episodic explicit memory activates in the human brain.
There are two types of long-term memory:
- Explicit — conscious, intentionally recalled memories
- Implicit —unconscious memories that nevertheless fuel our nervous systems
Examples of explicit memories are family Christmas traditions, a specific sad incident, and factual information such as the multiplication table or that soccer sign-up is Friday. Anything we remember consciously is an explicit memory.
While we can’t remember certain events from our baby days or early toddler years, our brains were still storing information that — to this day — unconsciously affects how we think, and therefore behave. This is known as implicit memory.
It is also implicit memory that drives our ability to tie our shoes, read, and operate a car without having to think through each step of the process. I call it “muscle memory” in that our nerve-fed muscles seem to remember what to do in these circumstances without our conscious effort.
As powerful as those explicit memories can be, the unconscious memories are what we need to watch out for. You know you’ve bumped up against an implicit memory when you have a knee-jerk reaction. Are you deathly afraid of the dark or of being alone, and don’t know why? Are you puzzled by your strong wave of anger when your toddler cries in the middle of the night?
It could very well be that an implicit memory has surfaced, but your brain at the time of forming that memory wasn’t yet able to create a concrete memory. So you’re left with only the confusing feelings dissociated from the original event, yet triggered by a current event that may not at all pose the same level of threat. Your non-compassionate reaction to your crying baby, for example, could instead be associated with the distress your brain felt when you were left crying as a baby yourself.
Implicit memories begin wiring the brain in the newborn months. So there are about three or four years of early childhood development there when your child’s experiences — good or bad — are assembling her brain’s foundations for reflexive responses. Implicit memories continue to affect our behavior throughout our lifetime. This is why if you were hit as a toddler, for example, certain situations may seem to trigger you to react in a disproportionately frightened or angry manner for no discernible reason.
This is partly why parents who were hit as children tend to “instinctively” hit their own children, and it can be difficult for these parents to abandon their harsh discipline techniques for a gentle approach. Hitting their children when angry is literally a part of how their brain works.
We need to be incredibly careful in what experiences we are exposing our babies and toddlers to, at a time when it’s easy to assume they won’t remember it anyway. Because they will, and — good or bad — it’ll come out in how they parent their own kids.
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