Creating meaningful family memories with your children

Memories are the most precious things that we acquire in life.  These mental recollections are the only things that truly belong to us, and only us, that no one can buy or steal or alter.  

As parents, we strive to create meaningful and lasting memories for our children to carry with them through life.  We aspire to create experiences to shape and mold them into the people they are meant to be, and to be looked back upon with fondness in their later years.

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But as we can all attest — who here hasn’t argued over specifics of a past event with someone? — memories are fickle things.

So what can we do to make the most of our children’s memories?

What makes a memory stand out?

Think back to some of your earliest childhood memories.  What do you remember?  

While it is often difficult to remember the mundane details of daily life, our brains are programmed with three built-in tripwires that allow us to learn new things (or in this case, create a memory).   

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  1. Significance

Out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, whether a birthday party, trauma or momentous event, trigger a hormonal response that allows our brain to process information faster than normal and retain information better.

  1. Repetition

With recurrence comes remembrance, which is why we can easily recall bits and pieces of our childhood routines (think getting tucked into bed with a specific toy every night) better than one-off instances.  

  1. Chronicled

Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words — especially when it comes to documenting events — but I would argue that all those words work just as well when it comes to solidifying memories.  Whether through retold stories or a framed snapshot, having an event documented increases our ability to remember details that might have otherwise been forgotten.

Creating the most meaningful memories

So now that you’re armed with the science behind how the brain makes a memory, what kind of memories do you want to create with your children?  

Be present and join in on the fun

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One of the best tips I ever received as a mother is to just be present.  Yes, this advice seems like common sense; yet many of us struggle with it.  This basic principle is easily forgotten or brushed aside in our busy lives full of distractions. 

Being present in our own lives and with our loved ones requires intention.  This is the case with spending quality time with our partners, with friends and family, and with our children.  

The next best advice I heard was to join in on as many experiences as possible with your children.  Jump on the trampoline (carefully if your balance isn’t what it used to be).  Play in the pool (even if the idea of wearing a bathing suit makes you cringe).  Get out from behind your screen and get in those spontaneous photos.

Many women tend to be the ones orchestrating memories for their families but fall short of being fully engaged.  Don’t do it; don’t sit on the sidelines of their childhood.  Join in on the fun, even if it feels awkward.  Let the kitchen mess be if it means sharing in that pop-up post-dinner dance party.  Take as many pictures with your children as you can.   

You will never get these moments back.  Be present and participate.

Find your own traditions

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Creating your own family traditions with your children does not require an annual holiday or even a significant milestone.  Celebrations of everyday victories or the passing of time can hold just as much meaning in creating a memory as the larger occasions.  And the repetition reinforces that memory.

Establish a once-a-week family event to ensure you have built-in quality time for as long as you can see.  One of my close friends growing up had a Monday night family dinner each week; I always admired that all family members made this a priority to start each week together.  Even better, this tradition continues to this day and now includes the grandchildren.  What a great legacy to pass along to those little ones!

Make up your own quirky traditions to add your own twist to any holiday (or any day!).  In our house, we celebrate Valentine’s Day every year with The Princess Bride movie and pizza night.  My husband and I have been able to share our love for one of the best romantic movies ever made with all our girls and create lasting memories over the years.  Remember that Valentine’s Day when we had to make our own pizzas with spaghetti sauce because the snowstorm in Texas shut everything down?  Inconceivable!

The beautiful thing about traditions is that they often happen without any master plan.  The first time you let your child help you wrap holiday gifts becomes an annual Wrap Off contest.  A random trip to Starbucks with kids in tow turns into a monthly hot chocolate and coffee date.  

Be on the lookout for opportunities to establish your own traditions with your family.

Plan adventures, but embrace the unplanned ones as well

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What better way to create memories than by venturing outside of your usual world into the unknown of an adventure?  Whether you finally splurge on that monumental trip to Disney World, take a weekend trip to camp out at the nearest national park, or plan a staycation to explore the wonders of your home town, these special adventures are bound to leave a lasting impression on everyone.

You can create an amazing adventure anywhere, and they don’t have to come with a hefty price tag.  What hidden treasures does your city hold that you can share with your children?  Museums, flea markets, nature trails, historical landmarks — incorporating any of these into your weekend rotation can create a new shared memory.

Some of my favorite memories are of the adventures that were not planned at all.  The impromptu motel staycation when your A/C unit goes bust.  The beach vacation spent in the condo playing board games because of the unexpected quasi-monsoon.  The Mother’s Day celebrated in the basement due to a tornado warning (this one I actually recall vividly myself!).  

Life doesn’t always go as planned.  However, these unforeseen bumps on our road trip through parenthood provide us the opportunity to not only create memories with our children but also to teach them resilience and flexibility.  By modeling these traits and making the most of an otherwise crummy situation, we provide them with invaluable life lessons.  

So the next time the airline loses your luggage and you find yourself underwear shopping at Walmart at 11:13 pm, embrace that unplanned adventure with your kids.  Those are the real stories you will all remember and share (and hopefully laugh at!) for years to come.

Remembering our “why” in motherhood

As many overwhelmed mothers can probably also admit, I have not always done the best job of cultivating memories and sharing experiences with my daughters.  I was quick to blame the never-ending workload of adulting and parenthood for my inability to live in the moment.

At some point, it dawned on me that it will never get easier.  There will always be more to do, from now until eternity.  But there will never be another chance to enjoy this time with my family again.  

Now I try to remind myself to stop and live in a state of “good enough” in order to focus on what really matters.  To pause on checking off the perpetual to-do list and enjoy the memories that would otherwise slip away unnoticed.  And while it is still a challenge to leave the dishes in the sink and ignore the unanswered voicemails so that I can enjoy a post-dinner family walk, it is something this lifelong perfectionist is working on for her children.  

The moral of the story from the expert herself

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As I was writing this article early one morning, my 11-year-old daughter came into my office (as she often does when I’m trying to get work done) and wanted to know what I was working on.  I explained the topic to her and asked her to share her top two favorite memories of her childhood so far.  And of course, her answer perfectly highlights the morale of this whole narrative.

Her first favorite memory was the Disney cruise vacation we took as a family when the girls were very small.  Yes, the vacation itself was incredible and full of fun-in-the-sun adventures — but it was also the last vacation my ex-husband and I took with the girls together before we got divorced.  I’m so thankful that she holds onto that fond recollection of our family as it was before the divorce changed our family landscape.  

Her second memory was a simple, recurring one — singing “You are my Sunshine” together before bed every night.  This seemingly small act, repeated every night since both of my two daughters were infants, has left an imprint on her that she will carry for the rest of her life.  That makes every night, even those when I had felt too exhausted to get through the sometimes lengthy bedtime routine, absolutely worth it.  

Memories are everywhere

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You never know what events and actions, large or small, will leave a permanent impression on you or your children.  All you can do is show up every day, be present, and try to capture the best of every situation you encounter together.  

Wishing you joy and the best of luck in all of your memories to come.

What family traditions have you implemented with your families?  What unintended memories have you created with your children?  We would love to hear your stories in the comments below!

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