How do you know you were four?
March 28, 2008 12:05 PM   Subscribe

In your childhood memories, how do you know how old you were?

My whole life I've never understood this. When people are telling stories about things they remember when they were 4, or 7, or whatever, how do they know how old they were? Does the memory come branded with the year? This comment is an example. Here's another example from the same thread. How do you know if you were 4 or 5 or 6 years old at the time? At the very most I could maybe, based on context, say what school grade I was in -- starting in about the 6th grade; before then everything is pretty much a big blur. I would very much like to know how you manage to put a year to your early memories.
posted by creasy boy to Human Relations (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd think the context of other things you can remember -- what house you lived in, how old any siblings may have been, whether you had a particular pet, etc. would help you fill in the gaps.
posted by justonegirl at 12:07 PM on March 28, 2008


School grades, yeah; every classroom had a different culture and feel, so it's easy to break it down that way.

Aside from that, it doesn't seem so hard; as I recall, little kids tend to focus on their age a lot ("I'm NOT four! I'm four and a QUARTER!"), so it seems like for a lot of people, one's age is an integrated part of their identity.

Did you have any siblings? I know a lot of my early identification with my age came from thinking about my older sister. ("She got a bike when SHE was seven! How come I don't have a bike?")
posted by Greg Nog at 12:10 PM on March 28, 2008


I agree: context. I guess based on where I remember being, since we moved a lot when I was a kid. Also, I guess based on who I remember interacting with, as there were several members of my family who died when I was very young. So if I was in apt. X with aunt Z., I know I am 0-3 years old, and 3 is most likely.
posted by prefpara at 12:11 PM on March 28, 2008


For the most part I remember school years and have to calculate my age at the time based on the fact that I know I was in the 6th grade when JFK was assassinated in 1963. I have very clear memories of being in Nursery School and Kindergarten, and specific memories from every grade (although not so much first and second year of pre-school - that's kind of a blur). I remember telling my parents one day in the kitchen that I really liked being 5 years old. My father put his foot up on a stool and leaned down to tell me he thought that was very interesting. My earliest memories are of places I only saw when I was 2 which I can only identify because my mother has explained what they were (a house by a railroad track near a lake).
posted by thomas144 at 12:13 PM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I also get the context for what happened early in life from stories that my relative told me about myself, complete with age.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 12:13 PM on March 28, 2008


In general I think some people have a lot of clear memories of childhood (I do) and others just don't (my partner is this way).

For me, often the memories are connected to stories that my family tells a lot, so it's not hard to figure out. There's the year of the big snowfall ('82), the year we went to this one beach, the year I drove the car down the hill, etc.

Also, correlations to other things with known timeframes:
School year, teacher, classmates
How old was my sister, cousins, etc who appear in the memory?
Had we gotten the white cat yet?
Had we given away the dog?
Which car is there?
Are my sister and I sharing a room or not?
Is the tire swing in the basement? (I know, incredibly dangerous over a cement floor - but so fun)
Was the porch screened or glass (were the renovations done)?
Was my grandfather/etc still alive?
Were we driving to a certain school, or gymnastics class, or relative/friend of family's house that we only went to during a certain time frame?

For memories that don't have any of those clues, sometimes I just know when it happened -- "a specific afternoon, lying on the bed, looking up and thinking about a particular event at school, watching the sun go across the ceiling" -- that happened when I was 11.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:14 PM on March 28, 2008


I suppose I have a series of anchor events that I can easily tie an age to, and then I compare the memory to those events.

In a given Christmas memory, is Grandpa there? Well, he died when I was X years old. Was my stepmom around? Well, my dad didn't marry her until I was Y years old. Were we unwrapping presents in the old living room or the new living room? Well, we remodeled the house when I was Z years old.

Add a few more anchors and it's reasonable to solve the equation quickly!
posted by adamk at 12:15 PM on March 28, 2008


By context, just like you mentioned with school grades. Other contextual clues could be remembering locations (e.g., "We lived in this house until I was 5, then we moved" and your memory includes details from the old house), friends, pets, vacations, etc.

Another means might be via partially anecdotal: you have a partial memory of an event which is augmented by your parents' recollection of the same event, ("Remember that time Timmy fell into the well? You were so brave when you ran to tell me."). Related to that would be have a partial memory which is triggered by examining photos or videos of yourself at the time. I get this later one all the time: I'll remember some little detail about being in a big forest wearing a scratchy blue sweater that I hated and then run across a faded photo of myself at 5 posing in a blue sweater in front of a "Welcome to Yosemite" sign.
posted by jamaro at 12:16 PM on March 28, 2008


(But I should say, I don't always know. There are some memories I can't put an age to)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:19 PM on March 28, 2008


Most of my memories from early childhood are associated with certain events (birth of a sibling, first day of school, family members dying, etc.) that happened on a certain date, so I know exactly how old I was at the time.

But I guess you're referring to events that aren't so easily dated. A lot of times, I've confirmed my memory with someone else, like my mother, who might say "Oh that happened when you were four" and from then on, when that memory resurfaces, I associate it with being four.

I also can "see" some of my memories in my head, and the clothing I was wearing (or what someone else important in the memory was wearing, like a friend or teacher) will give me huge clues to my age at the time.

But honestly, this is the first I've ever thought about it. It's never occurred to me that someone *wouldn't* know at least within a year or two how old they were in a memory, especially one from childhood, since you would think those would be really important for some reason.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:20 PM on March 28, 2008


I have a series of anchor events that I can easily tie an age to, and then I compare the memory to those events.

Same here. But I know my brain works a certain way, which isn't universal -- I've met some people who don't retain much long-term memory, who can't recall their childhood, at all.
posted by Rash at 12:20 PM on March 28, 2008


Many childhood memories are implanted or significantly altered by family member's recollections. Parents will typically remember age related milestones with some accuracy, and contextualize their retelling this way.
posted by phrontist at 12:23 PM on March 28, 2008


We moved nearly every year, so I just have to figure out the town we were in at the time.
posted by unixrat at 12:26 PM on March 28, 2008


Nthing context. Most of my early memories are based around how old my brother was, or what grade I was in, or what else was happening at the time. (ie 'It was Expo 86, so I must have been 8...). Also, what pet we had at the time is a big one. "It was just after we got Stripe, so I had to be 7...".

For instance, my earliest memory is me, in the living room, looking at my brother sitting in his car seat on the living room floor. He was still a baby, so I had to be 2. (My brother is exactly 2 years younger than me, technically, 1 year, 364 days and about 18 hours, so it makes the math easy). But that being said, I no longer actually remember the event. I do however, remember me remembering it. It's a memory of a memory... but I don't know when the original memory occurred - just the result.
posted by cgg at 12:34 PM on March 28, 2008


Yeah. I moved a few times as a kid, so I just need to remember where I was living at the time of a specific memory, then I usually can figure it out if I think about what grade I was in.
posted by smitt at 12:34 PM on March 28, 2008


Every memory I have where I know my age actually does have my age branded to it in the way that you suggest. For the ones that don't, I have no idea what my age was, except when context allows me to deduce it. I attribute this to Greg Nog's point that children are very aware of their age.

It may even be that case that I consciously labeled them with my age at some point earlier in my life, when the event was closer to me, when I still had that childhood preoccupation with how old was, and when I could say with confidence that it happened a certain number of years before the present moment.
posted by invitapriore at 12:35 PM on March 28, 2008


Most of it is context, but for me a lot of it is approximating too. I say "when I was 5" a lot when I might have been 4 or 6.

Part of it, too, is that people change a lot between, say, 5 and 8, than between 25 and 28. Grades change, siblings get born, you get taller, you learn new things like cursive and multiplication, you get braces/glasses, and as Greg Nog said, your age and where you are in the growing-up process is really important to most kids. I have a harder time remembering exactly when things happened in my twenties because there are whole stretches of years when I had the same job/apartment/hairstyle/friends.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:38 PM on March 28, 2008


for the most part, I can picture the baseball cards that were current at the time.

Also, a few key events, like Skylab and Mt St. Helens erupting, although I think memory can be deceptive when trying to recall what happened "at the same time" as landmarks like these.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:38 PM on March 28, 2008


Agreed with the context thing, most of my memories as a youngin' are associated with school, and if not, I have heard my mother say how old I was at the time or something. However, my age for my younger memories (up through 6th grade) I have an age for. Anything between now and early high school is kind of a blur, and I could tell you "I was in high school" but I won't necessarily remember how old or what year I was in now. Stupid drugs/booze.
posted by Grither at 12:43 PM on March 28, 2008


It's pretty easy for me because we moved at least once a year, often twice, and I was constantly changing schools, apartments, towns, and states. Also, both of my parents went through numerous relationships, so I can tell by whichever S.O. is in the memory. I've always wondered how people with normal childhoods could tell what age they were in memory!
posted by Enroute at 12:44 PM on March 28, 2008


For instance, my earliest memory is me, in the living room, looking at my brother sitting in his car seat on the living room floor. He was still a baby, so I had to be 2. (My brother is exactly 2 years younger than me, technically, 1 year, 364 days and about 18 hours, so it makes the math easy). But that being said, I no longer actually remember the event. I do however, remember me remembering it. It's a memory of a memory... but I don't know when the original memory occurred - just the result.
posted by cgg

Why was your brother in a car seat on the living room floor? Though I suppose maybe that's why you remember it, cause it was non-sensical...

My earliest memory is from pre-k, when I first met one of the other boys in class, we went to shake hands (what little kids shake hands when they meet anyway?!) and we static-shocked each other, and I never went near that kid again.
posted by Grither at 12:46 PM on March 28, 2008


Why was your brother in a car seat on the living room floor?

Less nonsensical than you think - if a baby has a head cold it's an easy way for them to sleep slightly propped up.

I was a kid in love with his bike and since we moved yearly, I know the layout of a bunch of Midwestern towns to this day. I *know* that I could walk through Mott, North Dakota and know how to get 'home', even thought it's been 25+ years.
posted by unixrat at 12:56 PM on March 28, 2008


My husband comes from a military family, and they moved every single year until he was in High school. He also has four siblings. He can peg memories very accurately by a) location, and b) age of his siblings.

I, on the other hand, was an only child living in a very rural location, so not even a lot of other kids to play with until I was in school. My pre-school memories are all a big blur - if it weren't for family photos and some contextual clues (memories of certain toys need to be after certain years, for example) I wouldn't be able to put any of it in sequence.
posted by anastasiav at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2008


Response by poster: Wow, lotta answers. Thanks, I guess that explains it. I didn't ever move and had one friend for a long time and my parents never divorced and I have a fuzzy memory of childhood anyways. My brother is four years older, hence rather removed from my doings. I'm happy that some of you said it's more than context, that you just know your age in some memories, since that's what I suspected: that there's some phenomenological sixth sense in the catalogue of memory that I'm just missing.

An example: I have a memory of lying on the floor in our vacation house in NH while my parents were packing to leave and starting to cry because I wanted to stay. We always had that house and were there pretty frequently. I must've been young enough to not yet be used to leaving the vacation house several times a year, i.e. I must not have had much of an enduring memory of seasonal change at that point, but I have no idea what age that would have made me. Absolutely no idea. Two? Six? I just can't say.
posted by creasy boy at 1:03 PM on March 28, 2008


As everyone else said, from context.

But it goes far past my childhood years. Pretty much everything that's happened to me between age 25-35 is categorized by where I worked, which room was my bedroom in my house (same house, but I've changed rooms), who I was dating, etc. Well, before age 25 is figured out by context, too, but before then I lived in another state, and another state before then, and another state before then, ad nauseum, so it's just much easier to figure those years out. 10 years of living in the same place makes it trickier.

It goes down to microdetails, too, like "2 weeks ago." Something that always strikes me as utterly unrealistic in TV shows is when, say, a suspect is questioned about an event and they immediately say, "three months ago." Unless I'm anticipating the question, I need to go through an elaborate procedure of: 1) what's today's date; 2) what was the event; 3) what was my life-context in which the event occurred; 4) ok, now I know when the event was; 5) compute number of days/weeks/months/years ago the event took place. It doesn't take as long to think as it does to type or read, but it sure isn't instantaneous.
posted by iguanapolitico at 1:05 PM on March 28, 2008


As in Bladerunner, your memories are most often tied to photographs which make them real. I can look at the photo album and remember those things clearly and they mostly have convenient dates attached to them. Memories that have no photos are much less clear. Otherwise I can remember I did this or that before I started kindergarten and then do the rough math.
posted by JJ86 at 1:20 PM on March 28, 2008


For me as a kid there were anchors

old house or new house? [pre 2 1/2 or after]
first friend or later group of friends? [before 5]
dad with mustache or not? [before 7]
dad driving Saab or not [before 8]
which pets? [all over the map, this is the best indicator, if I remembered pets]
pre-braces or after-braces? [before 9]
before broken arm or after? [before 9-10]
before school in the new town or after? [before 10]
before soccer or after? [before 12]
before first job or after? [before 13]

Most things that srtarted after nursery school I could remember because I'd remember what grade I was in and in some cases I'd remember how old I was because I'd remember what i was wearing and I'd know what grade I'd gotten that clothing for. We were also heavily photographed (seriously) as a family, so I have a lot of pictures of me with little dates on the edges which helps cement hazy memories.

Pretty much everything that's happened to me between age 25-35 is categorized by where I worked

I realized that once I got out of college I could no longer remember how old I was when anything happened or what YEAR anything happened which was a little more concerning because other people tend to anchor events like that and think you are weird if your past is a vast ribbon of time. So, I made a chart. It was a timeline of the years 1990-2000 over I think four variables, so it looked like this

YEAR
CAR DRIVEN
APT LIVED IN
JOB
GUY DATING

Usually any two of those characteristics could nail down a specific year, sometimes it took three. It's a freaking awesome chart and I find that decade a lot easier to remember as a result. I'm not sure if this really stopped people from thinking I was weird, come to think of it. Then I got a blogand now I just google it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:39 PM on March 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


iguanapolitico: Your elaborate remembering procedure is exactly the same process I go through when I have to remember the date of my last period.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:52 PM on March 28, 2008


I agree about the context or anchors. For instance, I remember eating my first tv dinner at the age of 3. How do I know I was 3? Well I remember eating it because my dad can't cook, and my mom was in the hospital after giving birth to my brother. I'm 3 years old than him...so I was 3 years old. I can even give you a pretty close approximation of what day of the week it was by looking at a calendar. But yeah...I don't have it imprinted into memory.

I can remember the first time I kissed, had sex, etc...because I remember my geeky ass going "oh my god...I'm NEVER going to forget cinco de mayo 1996...EVER! But I guess that's different because I CHOSE to remember those dates. Kinda like how some people remember dec 7, 1941.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:53 PM on March 28, 2008


'I also can "see" some of my memories in my head, and the clothing I was wearing (or what someone else important in the memory was wearing, like a friend or teacher) will give me huge clues to my age at the time.'

Only some of your memories? You don't see them all? This is a serious question . I see all of my memories. I'm not sure that I am able to have a memory without an attached visualization. But maybe I am just weird that way.

In any case, I'm not really sure how I know how old I was in particular memories. It must be context, but in some cases it's just that I know for external reasons. I remember, very young, sitting in the living room with the footstool as my table (my legs stretched out under the stool), drawing a picture with a Flair pen, making some last minute changes, and handing it to my mom... who then put it in my baby book and marked it with my age: 3. So I date that memory because my mom made it easy to date it. I remember one of my parents turning to the other, while watching the Evening News, and saying "Well, now the world revolves around Cambodia." I didn't know what was meant by that, but I can still remember to this day what the room looked like, that the sun was still up (so it wasn't Winter), and because I remember the room, and the apartment building it was in, and the street it was on, and the town (which we lived in only briefly), the combination of that and the comment itself tells me that this happened when I was four.

I guess in my case, a lot of the context does come from what I "see" in the memory.
posted by litlnemo at 2:03 PM on March 28, 2008


My dad could probably have been a close second to the guy with "unusual autobiographical remembering", before he began to get symptoms of dementia a couple of years ago. He can remember car trips they were on and every diner and motel they stopped at (though he couldn't have told you the day like that guy). He still has an uncanny ability to pull details out of his childhood, although nowadays he often loses the names of people or places. It came from his mother's side of the family, and they call it "the Penn memory" which almost sounds like you were writing it down. My brother has it to a less impressive extent. I don't have it at all, and have to guess based on context like the rest of you.

One memory I can date really easily, and I only have about two memories that obviously predate it, is the day we moved from an apartment to a house. I remember that the refrigerator wasn't completely drained, and it was dripping down the stairs as the movers schlepped it. I remember -- probably incorrectly -- being unsafely close to this operation. So at once I have an example of both a good solid memory with a time anchor and the fuzziness/revisionism of memory.
posted by dhartung at 3:39 PM on March 28, 2008


I thought, ha, this is going to be easy, we moved at least every year until I was 9, and for sure, I can place most memories up to age 12 within an 18 month period. But then, we lived in the one spot for 5 years, and I went to the one school for 5 years, and the further away I get from that (it's 23 years since I left school) the less clarity there is in which year something happened. Still, I can pinpoint it to a 5 year period, and I never knew anyone now famous, so nobody's going to rely on my memory for a tell all book.
posted by b33j at 4:07 PM on March 28, 2008


Only some of your memories? You don't see them all?

Some of my memories are just smells or feelings, without any associated picture. Maybe those can't really be considered memories, I don't know, but I've always thought of them that way. Maybe I'm the weird one?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:37 PM on March 28, 2008


About photographs and memory...

I took a photography course from Ralph Hattersly in 1963. I learned a lot.

One point he made was that, if you are carrying a camera and taking pictures at an event, your memories of the event will be limited to the pictures you took there. If you want to experience something, it is necessary to not photograph it.

I saw him a few years later at a big rally in Central Park. We seemed to be the only two people there without cameras.
posted by hexatron at 5:10 PM on March 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


BBC Radio 4 did a major survey on memories recently. On the website you'll find scores of memories submitted by listeners, as text or audio. One particularly interesting segment concerns "pre-verbal" memories -- i.e. from before learning to talk, often well before the mean age of 3.5 years.

The only way you can really know how old you were is if there's a detail in the memory that's dateable. E.g. a memory involving a person who died when you were very young. Or a house where you moved away from when very young. Or just a particular arrangement of furniture. That's how I can date my own (very mundane) earliest memory -- drawing with crayons while lying on a fold-out bed -- since the bed was moved from that room when I was about 4. I have other vague memories from when I was very young, but there is no way to date them.
posted by snarfois at 5:28 PM on March 28, 2008


I've always wanted to make a timeline like jessamyn describes, but never got round to it. I like Phil Gyford's one too.
posted by snarfois at 5:34 PM on March 28, 2008


I totally can relate. My first memory was around Christmas time, but I have no idea whether I was 2 1/2 or 3 1/2.
posted by whoaali at 6:21 PM on March 28, 2008


Keep in mind that memories can be true and fallacious at the same time. Your memories might be impossible to pin down to a specific moment. That doesn't mean that parts of them aren't true.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:42 PM on March 28, 2008


I don't know how old I was. I always have to figure it out from what school grade I think I was probably in at the time.
posted by flabdablet at 8:14 PM on March 28, 2008


I'm with you, creasy, even to the point of busting a few people when they started stories that way... "how do you know you were three?"... sometimes they admit they're just guessing, but others seem damn certain they were exactly two, or whatever.

I am also jealous of anyone who can genuinely remember anything that early. Myself, I don't have any memories until I was six years old, no real faith anything happened before then at all. If I'm a robot or some sort of simulacrum, my memory was loaded in starting at six years old.
posted by rokusan at 9:41 PM on March 28, 2008


Hah, I usually have no idea how old I was, unless the event I'm thinking about was really tied to a date.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:14 PM on March 28, 2008


gesamtkunstwerk said: Keep in mind that memories can be true and fallacious at the same time.

This is so true. This comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my brother (who is 2 years younger than I am) earlier this year about a certain shared experience in our childhood. The details he described from his "memory" were so different from those in mine that now I'm not really sure if I can trust my own "memory" of the same experience. It was a really jarring feeling, the realization that the fairly clear "memories" I have in my mind are perhaps not really what happened.

But to answer the original question, I'm in the camp of those who moved around a lot (almost once a year, back and forth between countries and to different cities), so I can pin down whatever happened from where I lived at the time. ...Er, at least I think so anyway.
posted by misozaki at 5:33 AM on March 29, 2008


Samehere- my dad was in the military and we moved on average every 2.5 years, so it's pretty easy for me.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 12:12 PM on March 29, 2008


hexatron told a story: I took a photography course from Ralph Hattersly in 1963. I learned a lot.

One point he made was that, if you are carrying a camera and taking pictures at an event, your memories of the event will be limited to the pictures you took there. If you want to experience something, it is necessary to not photograph it.


Interestingly, I can't agree with that. About ten years ago I worked as a photographer for the local newspaper which obviously meant I took alot of photographs at events. Yet even if I don't look back at those photos I can rail off just as many things that I didn't take pictures of at the time. Of course it depended on the event. The hundreds of high school football and basketball games were work and tended to all blend together but many of the portraits, plays, political rallies, etc do stand out in my mind. I can remember many interesting things from those that could never be captured in a photograph.

For photographers that view every assignment as just another day at the job, you may be right but for photographers that find challenges and things of interest in their assignments you are far from right.
posted by JJ86 at 3:39 PM on March 29, 2008


In my experience, my memories are hugely colored by whether or not there is a photograph of that moment. In hindsight, you can always ask your parents/loved ones how old you were or figure out by using aforementioned context clues.
posted by mynameismandab at 7:34 PM on March 29, 2008


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