"The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.” - Dodie Smith, Dear Octopus
As adults, we often look back on our childhood and realize that our family—especially our parents—shaped us into who we are today. While perfect parents don’t exist, there are valuable things we as parents can do as we raise our children that allow them to look back at their childhood with gratitude and appreciation. Children will remember very few specific things from daily interactions, conversations, lessons, lectures, etc., but they will always remember the feelings and emotions they experienced while growing up in our homes.
While raising our children, we may often feel overwhelmed, and we might wonder what our children will remember from their childhood. Here are five things children never forget about their parents.
1. Children will remember how you express love.
All adults remember how their parents made them feel. Positive and negative feelings are part of every parent-child relationship. The goal for parents is to increasingly act in a way that children associate words such as loving, caring, affectionate, kind, encouraging, supportive, trusting, and protective with who we are as a parent. A study from researchers at Harvard found an association between parental warmth or love in childhood and flourishing later in life. In other words, children who have loving parents in childhood prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially as adults.
Many parents are concerned that they may not be getting it right. Considering that there are healthier types of parenting styles, it may be wise to figure out your style and make any needed changes that can improve your parent-child relationship. The authoritative style of parenting is connected with warmth and responsiveness and is recommended by experts. This parenting style is associated with outcomes of higher academic performance, self-esteem, social skills, less mental illness, and lower delinquency in children.
2. Children will remember how you discipline.
Just as we remember how our parents disciplined us, our children will remember how we discipline them, and our way of disciplining can carry on into the next generation. All parents understand how frustrating it is to have a disobedient or misbehaving child. All parents have said or done things while disciplining their children that they thought they would never say or do. We have been told that spanking and yelling do not lead to better behavior in children—yet we may resort to spanking because we haven’t experienced positive discipline examples in our own lives.
What are positive discipline techniques? These are strategies that will teach our children to manage their behavior, keep them from harm, and promote healthy development. These strategies might look slightly different within each family but may include modeling positive behaviors, setting consistent and age-appropriate rules with clear consequences, listening to our children’s opinions while helping them develop independence and reasoning skills, aiding our children in understanding the emotions they are experiencing, and redirecting poor behavior choices. Your confidence as a parent will grow as you see your children respond positively to these healthier ways of disciplining.
3. Children will remember how you value family time.
Children will remember the value you place on planned family time. Planned family time not only builds stronger family relationships but promotes healthy social and emotional skills. Something as simple as holding regular family dinners increases your child’s communication skills, mental well-being, self-esteem, and grade-point average. Consider that every time you choose to play outside, play board games, or play make-believe with your children, you are also helping to protect them against childhood stress and are teaching them social and emotional resilience.
You can feel confident planning your next family trip or family outing knowing that you are giving your children exactly what they need. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms that money spent on experiences instead of toys promotes stronger social relationships. Family trips, even free or inexpensive outings, teach the importance of making memories and enjoying the experience of spending time together. Children will also remember that you valued their time as you show up to support them in their school, music, sport, or other events.
4. Children will remember your example.
Children will remember your example. Researcher Brené Brown writes, “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the ‘never enough’ culture, the question isn't so much ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is: ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’”
All parents face this simple and humbling truth—our children will learn to engage with the world by watching us engage with the world. Our actions portray our family values. If we want our children to be kind, well-mannered, trustworthy, hardworking, responsible, faithful, empathetic, and patient—we need to mirror these virtues. Our children will learn to interact with each other and with others outside of the family group by watching the example of our interactions. And what happens if we mess up in these interactions? This turns into a learning experience that has the potential to greatly influence our children as they watch us model a needed course correction or a needed apology.
5. Children will remember your family traditions.
Children will connect our unique family traditions with who we are as a family. Family traditions—large and small—strengthen family bonds and create lasting memories. Bryan Zitsman, a marriage and family therapist, suggests keeping traditions “simple, but personal, and focus on strengthening the love and togetherness in your family.” Traditions surrounding holidays, such as carving jack-o-lanterns or decorating Christmas trees are easy to recognize but don’t underestimate the value added by smaller traditions that also build shared meaning and greater family connection. Many family traditions have come about because of an activity that was loved and was easy to repeat, such as pizza and a movie on Friday nights, Sunday game night, or cinnamon rolls on the first snowstorm of the year.
A tradition can even be a simple ritual. I spoke with one adult who recalled with fondness his mother opening the blinds every morning and saying, “Good morning world, it’s a beautiful morning.” This son came to expect and look forward to this ritual. Repeated family rituals, such as family prayer and giving thanks, also have the benefit of strengthening values that you want to emphasize in your family. Intentionally incorporating family traditions and rituals may improve your children’s self-worth, and your children’s health and academic achievement, while bringing lasting memories that they may carry with them into their adult lives.