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Forgetful Child: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our eight-year-old leaves things behind everywhere he goes. Are we expecting too much to think he can keep track of every article of clothing – both gloves and his hat – and every toy he brings with him when he goes to a friend’s house? Fortunately it’s nothing precious so far, and usually the other parents are able to locate the missing item as soon as we let them know. Will he grow out of this?

Where’s The Other One?


Dear WTOO,

Yes, there are stages to the ability to remember to collect everything he left the house with as a child’s memory develops. (Some of us continue to struggle with this ability throughout life!) His belongings are more likely to return home when you help to strengthen his working memory skills, his visual memory skills, and his rote memory skills.

Working Memory

Remembering everything when it’s time to return home from a friend’s house is a function of working memory. If the toys he brought from home were played with hours ago, their existence may no longer be top of mind. There are limits to how much information one can hold for ready access which can be affected by stress, insufficient sleep, hunger, and simply having other priorities to think about.

One way to help a child remember what he brought with him is to structure what he has to remember. Then it can be more easily accessed. Keep a constant limit to how many things he is allowed to take. Two is a good number to stick with. This is also the number of hands he has, which is a helpful association. (See Rote Memory below.) Items that have multiple pieces – such as a construction set, a deck of trading cards, a collection of rocks – should stay at home.

Even though our weather patterns are very changeable, it would be helpful to have a consistent set of clothing for your child to wear during the winter months. Even better if the hat and gloves match so they’re easy to pick out if they get mixed up with the host family’s belongings. We can expect children to remove gloves and mittens when they play outside, so try to minimize your economic losses by having several inexpensive pairs “on hand” throughout the season. (Your family might enjoy Jan Brett’s retelling of the Ukrainian folktale The Mitten to appreciate how easy it is to lose track of a mitten when playing outside.)

Visual Memory

Visualizing all the things he needs to bring back home, when it’s time to leave, is a function of visual memory. You can probably relate to occasionally struggling with recalling where you left something, especially when you’re tired or stressed. You just can’t picture it.

Visual memory skills can be strengthened by playing the game of Memory with any set of picture cards or a regular card deck. To start the game, all cards are face down on the table. The first player turns two cards over to see if they match. If they do, the player keeps them and goes again. If they don’t match, the cards are put back where they were, face down, and the next player takes a turn. The strategy that develops is to memorize the cards that have been revealed and returned face down to the table. Start with about eight pairs and work your way up to more and more as your child gets better and better at remembering what he has already seen.

Another visual memory game is with common objects. This game can be played with a child as young as three-years-old. After having your child name each object – a comb, a crayon, a cup, a toy car – cover them with a scarf or small towel. Ask your child to list the objects without looking at them. Every time you play the game, add more objects. It helps to train the eyes for reading if you lay the objects in rows and columns and have your child name them from left to right, from top to bottom.

Rote Memory

Rote memory helps us to do things, in a specific order, without having to think about them. Such behaviors that are performed on a regular basis are referred to as habits and are performed quite effortlessly. Brushing teeth as part of the bedtime routine is a good example. It’s just what you do. If you haven’t already, instill the habit of tucking gloves into the hat, and then the hat into a jacket sleeve when your child takes these off.

You can help your child make a habit of collecting everything that needs to be brought back home by setting a rote order to this process. The jacket always goes on first, then the hat; then the gloves or mittens are last. Now he can make sure the two toys he brought are in his two gloved hands.

When the seasons change, and your child no longer needs to bundle up to visit a friend, you may need to review the routine for taking toys with him and returning home with them. (“Check that you have one toy for each hand.”) This will help him to learn to set routines and mental checklists for himself.

With some assistance, your child can be helped to be responsible for things he left the house with. Age eight is a good time to work on his memory skills.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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