PART IV: Cognition and Personal Development

8

Memory, Self, and Gender: How Parents Shape their Children

Danielle Cordima, Bryanne Lemieux, and Madison McKay

The topic of this learning module is how parents’ interactions with their children shape their concept of self. Parents influence their child’s conception of self through the language and environment they are raised in. During their formative years, parents have a large impact on the development of their child’s concept of self. The language they use to talk about the child or to the child becomes associated with their own concept of who they are which impacts their self schemas. Self schemas are influenced by parents putting words and thoughts into their children’s heads which resurface in their development and self- concepts later in life. The concept of gender and gender roles has a large part in a child’s self-image, and the way a parent enforces gender roles shapes how the child’s self schema is built. Different cultures have gender stereotypes that also shape the environment that the child is in which influences their self- schema. By better understanding the process of memory and self, parents can better understand how to ensure that their actions are positively impacting their children and so, to this end, this paper explains how memory and schemas are made in the brain to help parents situate the advice of having elaborative conversations with their children and not reinforcing gender-roles to allow them to form their own self-schemas.

Memory

The self- schema is partly impacted by the working memory which allows humans to benefit from past experiences in order to make decisions about the present. The reasons we have cultural differences in parenting and views of self is because the ways in which people register information differ cross-culturally. Human habits of information processing vary. Information about the environment is received in the sensory register where capacity is unlimited and information can be perceived. Then those perceptions make their way to the working memory to be sorted as either information to be used in the moment or stored for later. Working memory allows humans to achieve immediate tasks like comprehension, learning, and reasoning while long term memory (LTM) system holds information to be used in the future that builds onto the web of knowledge acquired over time (Goldstein, 2019, p.143, 174). The working memory model consists of three components that allow for different types of information to be manipulated: the phonological loop (auditory and verbal), the visuospatial sketch pad (visual and spatial), and the central executive, which coordinates the action of the phonological loop and visuospatial sketch pad (Goldstein, 2019, p.143). In the long term memory system versions of the self that have been acquired overtime are held and can be retrieved later on (Goldstein, 2019, p.172). There are two types of memories that are stored in the LTM: semantic memory that gives rise to noetic awareness and episodic memory that gives rise to autonoetic awareness (Goldstein, 2019, p.175). Semantic memories are memories of facts that involve accessing knowledge about the world that is not tied to remembering personal experiences (Goldstein, 2019, p.175). While episodic memories are memories of specific personal experiences involving mental time travel back in time to feel a sense of reliving an experience (Goldstein, 2019, p.175). It is the feeling of self-knowing or remembering.

The combination of semantic and episodic memories and knowledge that consists of memories for specific life experiences is called the autobiographical memory (Goldstein, 2019, p.174). This is the groundwork for knowing oneself because it is a confluence of skills and information acquired that make up the story of “you” (Kleinknect, personal communication, 2020). This self concept becomes the way you gain information and share it about yourself, this includes language. Parent interactions with their children influence their self and memory then views of self begin to form. The Self Memory System is a component of the Autobiographical Memory System that attributes personal semantic memories and episodic memories to factual knowledge and semantic memories of oneself (Goldstein, 2019, p.178). Past experiences help determine the appropriate response to situations. When memories of a similar experience are accessed, the behaviors associated with that event or environment are caused by neurons firing in a specific pattern in the cerebral cortex. These neural networks are essential to learning.

The Brain

Culture and one’s surroundings have an effect on perception and cognitive processing. By repeating the same habits, the spreading activation, or semantic memory recall, is confined to certain physical locations in the cerebral cortex. This also has an effect on usage patterns of habitual behaviors that guide action and enable cognition. The habits of perceiving the information create ways of knowing and the cycle of perception and cognition continues (Kleinknecht, personal communication, February 22, 2020). As the relationship with the environment and the behaviors become more established, they become semantic regularities. Parenting can reinforce semantic regularities through repetition and frequent exposure to the desired environment or situation.

The experiences children have, impact the way in which they perceive the world around them, and further, how they react to it. Experience-dependent plasticity is directly related to this because experience influences the neural pathways in the brain. If exposed to specific stimuli in the environment, then neurons coded to respond to that stimuli will fire. If this firing is repeated, the neurons will adapt to the regularity and begin to perceive only that regularity (Goldstein, 2019, p. 34).

According to the Semantic Category Approach to memory, there are specific neural circuits in the brain for specific categories. Each network consists of nodes that are linked together and represent concepts (Goldstein, 2019, p.276). Concepts are placed into specific networks so that related concepts are connected. The neural networks emphasize brain responses to items from a specific category that is distributed across various cortical areas. The Embodied Approach is based on our sensory and motor processes reactivating when we interact with an object (Goldstein, 2019, p.290). When areas of the brain respond to different stimuli, for example hearing a word or phrase, memories associated with that word or phrase resurface to the working memory.

Parental Impacts on the Brain

Children’s memory development is influenced by parents, friends, and teachers (Kleinknecht, 2019). As the child ages and develops, episodic/autobiographical memory progresses and is fine-tuned. The way parents interact with their children has a direct effect on their memory capabilities (Kleinknecht, 2019). To improve cognitive and emotional development, parents should talk with their children about the memories they share together. Not only does this improve the parent-child relationship, but it encourages cognitive development as well. There are two types of reminiscence parents use: elaborative reminiscing and repetitive reminiscing (Kleinknecht, 2019).  With elaborative reminiscence, parents ask their children questions and answer them if the child cannot. Repetitive reminiscence, on the other hand, is when the parent asks the child a question and encourages them until the child can come up with an answer (Kleinknecht, 2019). Elaborative reminiscence has been shown to have more positive outcomes than repetitive reminiscence (Kleinknecht, 2019). Elaborative parent-child memory conversations not only improves memory abilities but also language development, attention control, and helps children connect experiences with emotions (Kleinknecht, 2019). To maximize learning opportunities, parents should talk with their children in detail about even daily topics like how their day was, and what they learned at school (Kleinknecht, 2019).

Another important way parents can maximize their child’s learning is to not label their child and promote a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset” (Kleinknecht, 2012). To achieve this, parents need to first understand that children are creating schemas, or categories, in the brain during their early years. When a child first learns or experiences something new, neurons create a pathway in the brain (Kleinknecht, 2012). When the experience is remembered or repeated, the network of neurons fire in the same pattern again. The more often a network of neurons becomes active, the more likely it is that a particular set of neurons will activate together again in the future (Kleinknecht, 2012). This is also known as Hebb’s rule. As experiences are repeated, schemas are created. Schemas help connect past experiences with present ones, and with the complexities of the world by guiding attention (Kleinknecht, 2012). The process of linking old knowledge and experiences with the present improves a child’s ability to recall information as there is an increase in the number of cues that can signal spreading activation (Kleinknecht, 2012). When parents use elaborative reminiscence, the emphasis on learning is put on the process rather than the outcome, stimulating schema activations and enhancing overall learning (Kleinknecht, 2012).

Not only do parents influence children’s memory and learning but also their sense of self.  “Self” is another schema that categorizes the perception of one’s self, as well as the vocabulary around one’s self. A mature self-schema contains pieces of knowledge from self-defining experiences, personality traits, hopes, dreams, sense of identity, and favored possessions (Kleinknecht, 2012). All individuals hold detailed schemas containing self-relevant details that contribute to the overall schema of “self” (Kleinknecht, 2012). There are two types of self: “I-self” and “me-self”(Kleinknecht, 2012). “I-self” is the personal and private version of what it feels like to be yourself (E. Kleinknecht, personal communication, April 20, 2020). The “me-self” is the public version of self or how someone presents themself to the world (word, actions, etc.) combined with how they think others perceive these things and how that makes them feel (Kleinknecht, 2012). How people describe themselves (“me-self”) to others has a specific language base associated with it which makes it an episodic or autobiographical memory system (Kleinknecht, 2012). The “self-memory system” reflects one’s need for coherence (feeling a sense of similarity to others) and correspondence (accurately represent past experiences) (Kleinknecht, 2012). These two are often at odds throughout the many aspects of life which disrupts the self-system bringing up feelings of frustration, uncertainty, and self-consciousness (Kleinknecht, 2012). This can be especially true for children during transition phases. Parents play a crucial role in helping children move throughout life. When parents talk down to or scrutinize their child, these remarks are associated with their self-image and can negatively affect their self-schema. Parents should instead guide their children and support them by using positive affirmations that encourage them to have a higher self-image. By using appropriately positive language, children’s thoughts around what they think about themselves will, in turn, become positive (Kleinknecht, 2020).

One other aspect within a child’s self schema that parents need to be aware of is gender and gender expression. Gender is what someone feels like on the inside, and gender expression is the way they choose to represent that on the outside, which can be related back to the “I-self” and the “me-self” concept. When a parent tries to enforce a gender stereotype but their child’s sense of self doesn’t align with that gender, it can create cognitive dissonance in the child or be seen as criticism. However, allowing a child to choose what they want to do regardless of the gender stereotype surrounding it provides the child opportunities to build their sense of self.

Intervention Strategies

As previously mentioned, there are many ways parents can influence their child’s learning, memory, behavior, and views of self. One scientifically-tested effective intervention strategy is wise intervention. Wise intervention is a change, via theory and research-based techniques, in a specific psychological process that attempts to alter the way someone thinks or feels about a social problem, another person, or themselves (Walton, 2014, p.73). They seek to defuse stereotype threats by challenging people to understand where another person is coming from and what it would be like to be in their situation (Walton, 2014, p.73). Wise interventions are motivated by the need to understand, the need for self-integrity, and the need to belong (Walton & Wilson, 2018, p.623-624).

The ultimate goal of wise interventions is to improve people’s outcomes by changing ways of thinking and how people interact with others (Walton, 2014, p.74). An important aspect of wise interventions is that they are a continuous process where behavior does not change with one intervention but as experiences and moments add up, change is made (Walton, 2014, p. 76). Wise interventions do not address objective qualities of people or situations but rather it focuses on subjective-meaning making or how people make sense of themselves and social situations (Walton & Wilson, 2018, p.618). Wise interventions should be thoroughly tested with randomized field experiments to clarify and deepen the psychological processes being changed (Walton & Wilson, 2018, p.622). This prevents harmful or ineffective strategies being used. Common sense or home remedies often have these negative effects (Walton & Wilson, 2018, p.623). There are three features of wise interventions that are needed to make them successful: the process being targeted must be relevant to the current situation; the intervention must change the targeted psychological process; to affect long-term outcomes, interventions must change critical recursive processes (Walton, 2014, p.79-80). In complex systems where the intervention addresses different aspects of the system, the intervention can lead to structural changes (Walton & Wilson, 2018, p.620).

The wise intervention of cognitive retraining of problems in parenting (Walton, 2014, p.76) is the intervention that is most similar to our present purpose. During this intervention, interviewers asked at-risk mothers about problems with their children and potential causes up to twenty times during the child’s first year (Walton, 2014, p.76). They did this until the mother gave non-self blaming and non-child blaming reasons and then interviewers asked mothers about potential solutions. The psychological process was having mothers explain and work through problems until they were no longer blaming themselves or the children causing them to feel more empowered as parents (Walton, 2014, p.76). The percentage of infants abused during their first year dropped from 25% to 4% after the intervention (Walton, 2014, p.76). The interventions also improved the overall health of the child and the mental health of the mother (Walton, 2014, p.76). This intervention saw that when mothers did not self-blame or child-blame, the mothers and the children fared better, and the mothers felt more empowered as parents. When parents feel empowered it creates a better relationship between parent and child. Similar to our project, this intervention focused on the parent-child relationship. Our project is centered around the dynamics of relationships between children and their caregivers, and how parents’ interactions with their children have an effect on their development. The following Wise Intervention Logic Model outlines how changes in parent’s interactions with their children can lead to better parent-child relationships as well as a more positive self-concept for the child.

Conclusion

Parents’ interactions with their children shape their concept of self in relation to gender. Through language use, elaborative conversations, allowing children to have their own experiences, encouraging children to have a positive self-image, and not reinforcing gender roles, parents can help their children as they move throughout the world and form their own self-schema. Self-schemas are schemas that categorize the perception of one’s self, as well as the vocabulary around one’s self. They are also a part of the working memory which allows people to benefit from past experiences in order to make decisions in the present. As semantic and episodic memories are made, they create autobiographical memories that lay the groundwork of creating the story of “you”. The role of the parent is important when it comes to shaping their child’s memories. What they say and do affect their development and view of self. This paper is crucial to help parents positively impact their children’s self concept through elaborative conversations and not reinforcing gender-roles allowing them to form their own self-schemas.

References

Goldstein, E. B. (2019). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience, 5th edition. Boston, MA. Cengage

Kleinknecht, E. (2012, February 24). Labels on the Brain. Retrieved from https://cognitioneducation.me/2012/02/24/labels-on-the-brain/

Kleinknecht, E. (2012, June 28). I am Me, Thanks to You. Retrieved from https://cognitioneducation.me/2012/06/28/i-am-me-thanks-to-you/

Kleinknecht, E. (2019, June 26). How to talk to my preschooler to maximize learning opportunities (A Nurture-Science post). Retrieved from https://cognitioneducation.me/2019/06/26/how-to-talk-to-my-preschooler-to-maximize-learning-opportunities-a-nurture-science-post/

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 73 – 82. doi: 10.1177/0963721413512856

Walton, G.M. & Wilson, T.D. (2018). Wise interventions: Psychological remedies for social and personal problems. Psychological Review, 125, 617 – 655. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev000011

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Chapter 8 by Danielle Cordima, Bryanne Lemieux, and Madison McKay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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