Cognitive Daily

Last week we wondered how having kids affects our own childhood memories. In many ways, our kids remind us of our own childhood, allowing us to relive our favorite memories. But kids also distract us by being so adorable (or not so adorable), and with new memories that might become more prominent than the old ones.

My own experience suggests that kids do remind me of my own childhood. Now that Jim and Nora are teenagers I find myself thinking about my own experience in high school — sometimes about memories I hadn’t considered for decades. But maybe that’s an illusion. What I would have remembered if I didn’t have kids?

This week’s Casual Friday study does offer a tentative — and surprising — answer. We asked our readers how many of their teachers’ names they could remember. We also asked them how many kids they have. This graph shows the relationship between their memory performance and number of kids:


There’s actually a slight decline in memory performance as the number of kids in a family increases. That decline is significant: respondents with more kids said they could recall significantly fewer teachers from their own childhood. Whoa! Does having kids destroy your memory?

Maybe not: One obvious explanation for this result is that memory declines with age. Older people are more likely to have kids, and — it would seem — less likely to remember their own childhood, whether or not they have kids. Our data bears out some of that reasoning, but not all of it. First, take a look at this:


Our readers do remember significantly fewer of their teachers as they get older. But now let’s combine reader age with whether or not they have kids:


This graph shows the most dramatic and surprising result of all. The decline in memory associated with having kids is entirely found in respondents under age 30. Could it be that having kids when you’re young destroys your memory, but having kids when you’re older enhances it?

Probably not. First (and most importantly), these are only correlations. This isn’t an experimental study, so we can’t show causation. But it’s also true that the memory for older adults with kids isn’t significantly better than for those without kids. There’s no significant difference in memory for younger adults with kids and older adults with kids either. The only significant differences this graph shows are between younger adults with and without kids, and between younger and older adults without kids. The second pattern is expected due to the natural decline with age, so we need only explain why younger adults with kids seem to remember less of their childhood (as measured by how many teachers they can name) than younger adults without kids.

This difference could be explained by education or economic status. It could be that people with less education tend to have kids at a younger age. So having kids doesn’t cause the lack of memory — lack of memory, in a sense, leads to having kids. At an older age, having kids doesn’t appear to affect memory one way or another, so it’s unlikely that it affects it at a younger age.

The survey did reveal some other interesting findings. We asked respondents to identify their most and least favorite years in school. Here we find a dramatic pattern:


By far the most popular year in school was 12th grade. Cars, dating, the imminent prospect of freedom — what’s not to like? The middle school years, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, represented the least popular years. I’m not sure why that is. Anyone have an explanation?

There was a relationship between how much students enjoyed school and how well they remembered their teachers:


Our respondents rated how much they enjoyed their favorite and least-favorite years in school on a scale of 1 to 5. Enjoyment of their favorite year was significantly correlated with memory performance. However, for their least favorite year, there was no significant correlation.

Some other interesting findings: The more friends you’re still in touch with from school, the more teachers you remember. The more recently you’ve looked at your high school yearbook, the more teachers you remember.

One final finding. In the US, most school districts move to a subject-by-subject organization in middle school, so we asked respondents if they could remember their mathematics teacher once they had different teachers for each subject. While women were better than men at remembering their teachers in elementary school, in middle and high-school, men’s memory performance was better than womens’. Could this be related to the stereotypical boys’ preference for math?


  1. #1 middle school hater
    November 21, 2008

    I’m not sure if you were sarcastic as to why people didn’t like 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, but in case you weren’t here is my explanation. Puberty, everyone is awkward!! Hormones, how are you supposed to deal with those?! You have braces, pimples, crushes who are crushing on someone else, not to mention bad hair cuts because you’re not old enough to go to a real salon. And because everyone is awkward, everyone is mean to try to make themselves feel better. I always presumed this information was common knowledge, but if it’s not, now you know why the rest of us were miserable.

  2. #2 Blog Mallmal
    November 21, 2008

    Puberty explains the drop around 7th grade…

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    November 21, 2008

    There’s another factor which seems significant to me.

    If you have no children, the only names of teachers with whom you have had dealings are the ones who taught you. The more children you have, the greater the number of teacher names you’re dealing with … and the teachers of your children are mentioned and discussed much more often than your own childhood teachers.

    Thus, the “memory loss” you’re talking about doesn’t seem surprising to me.

  4. #4 Becca
    November 21, 2008

    My least favorite year was second grade. My favorite was probably 8th, but I that actually brings up an interesting point. I didn’t go to high school, so my 8th grade year was my last. I suspect this means that it is common to enjoy the *last* year of school, rather than finally being old enough for cars/dating/ect.

    On a goofy note, isn’t there a sample bias here? What about those folks who’s memories are so bad they can’t remember accurately how many kids they have?

  5. #5 Faith
    November 21, 2008

    One obvious point that appears nowhere in the discussion here – younger parents with children are far more likely to have *younger children* with the accompanying lack of sleep. Lack of sleep will destroy ANYone’s memory.

  6. #6 Szonja
    November 22, 2008

    I`m in the group of young parents with almost no memory at all:) And I`m doing my PhD so in my case not remembering teachers name is not really related to the educational level. But it seems to me that it`s strongly related to my level of tiredness:)
    Parents in my age group usually have younger kids (so maybe its not the age of the parents but the age of the kids that counts), and first: they are usually overladen, sleep less and work hard and a lot beside raising their children. On the other hand their kids are younger, usually before the age of school, which means they don`t have the same reason to recall their childhood memory as parents of older kids have.
    I don`t know, I`m a layman, but don`t you think some of these factors could be important?

  7. #7 Danielle Rudder
    November 22, 2008

    Aside from the obvious reasons for disliking one’s middle school years (as previously posted), I once heard of a study claiming that the least competent teachers tended to be assigned to middle schools. Things may be different now than they were 20 years ago, but when I was in middle school, I had some of the most abysmal teachers imaginable (ones who deserved to be fired, but were tenured). Add to that the fact that middle schoolers are at their most awkward AND their most cruel, and you have a recipe for a nasty 3-year period.

  8. #8 Arthur Rodrigues
    November 22, 2008

    Can you please tell how many people took the survey?


  9. #9 Mary Ann
    November 22, 2008

    I would be interested in seeing what “memory” remains with those who have no siblings and lost their parents before they had children. I question the “memories” of ones self verses the “memories” of others combined with your own to form a more complete memory.

  10. #10 S
    November 22, 2008
  11. #11 Dave Munger
    November 22, 2008

    Arthur: There were 485 respondents.

  12. #12 Rebecca
    November 24, 2008

    My favourite year was grade 13, but I realize that it wasn’t available because the US has 12 :).

    And dito to the ‘puberty will destroy anyone’s fun, thus grade 7 is so unpopular’.

  13. #13 Koka Thomason
    November 24, 2008

    In addition to puberty hitting during middle school (though it was much earlier for me, and I chose 7th grade as my least favorite), I think there may be another reason to consider: Though it varies by geographical region, middle school is where you go from one class/one teacher to multiple classes/multiple teachers. It’s a dramatic shift in your school experience, and this chaos may contribution to feelings of confusion and insecurity.

  14. #14 Yu Haibo
    November 25, 2008

    I think the reason for Memory loss between having kids and not is kids itself.

    when kids are young,mother must care for them with more time and energy, so under 30 ,having kids’s memory is less than not having.

    but when the kids grow uo,the mother do not need to care for them with much time because they are independent. so above 30, there is no diference between having and not having

  15. #15 Prof. Bleen
    November 29, 2008

    Looks like you have some statistical backing for Matt Groening’s assertion in Life in Hell: “Junior high school: the deepest pit in hell.”

  16. #16 Luna_the_cat
    November 29, 2008

    I’ve heard Junior High kids described as “quivering bundles of hormones bouncing off the walls and each other”; yep. Everyone is wound up, unstable, awkward, mean, beginning to get horny, and unable to focus on anything not really emotional. And you had forgotten this?? How?????

    I think the “number of teachers” issue is an important one, as several other posters have mentioned. The more teachers at any given level you have had to interact with, the more likely the more recent ones will be the ones you recall, surely.

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