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?