Dates or Details? Exploring How Children Remember

Illustration by Dom Scibilia

Oberlin Professor of Psychology William Friedman’s research on children’s memory of events and when they occurred could be critical to those in the legal profession, particularly because children are often called on to testify in sensitive legal cases.

A recently published study is one of the first specifically designed to shed light on children’s ability to testify about the times of past events. It showed that children had difficulty remembering when events occurred, but could recall details very well.

“There is a danger that children can be inappropriately discredited as witnesses if they can’t remember the time of an event,” says Friedman, a 1972 Oberlin graduate. “In fact, children can often remember accurate information about an event, even when they can’t place that event in time.”

In the study, Friedman and fellow researcher Thomas Lyon, professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, working with a team of Oberlin undergraduates, conducted two in-class demonstrations with 86 Oberlin schoolchildren between the ages of 4 and 13 shortly before and after Halloween. Three months later, the children were asked to recall the content of the demonstrations and when they occurred.

Friedman and Lyon discovered that no matter what their ages, the children had difficulty remembering that Halloween was near the demonstration date. They also couldn’t remember whether the demonstrations had happened before or after the holiday, although they could remember other details very well. Findings from the study were published in the November/ December 2005 issue of Child Development.

The study also showed that open-ended questions, such as “Tell me everything you remember about that day,” almost never produced information related to the time of the event. At the same time, focused questions like “What season was it?” led to lots of inaccurate answers. This, says Friedman, demonstrates a need for future research on what kinds of questions elicit the most accurate information while minimizing the amount of inaccurate information.

Friedman has been conducting studies on the human experience of time for 30 years. His current work includes a study with residents of a local retirement home that explores why time seems to accelerate as we age. Next academic year, Friedman will be on research status in Dunedin, New Zealand, performing research on children’s ability to remember the times of past events over periods of years.

Emily's Chapbook

Emily Ruth Hazel '06
Photo by John Seyfried

Emily Ruth Hazel was raised on all things Brown. Her parents, both Brown graduates, were hopeful that she’d continue the legacy, so they showered her with stories, campus visits, and old college T-shirts. And, like any good writer, Hazel gathered everything up, turned it into an essay, and got it published in BAM, Brown’s alumni magazine.

Then she chose Oberlin.

It wasn’t exactly the move her parents were hoping for, but their passion was inspiring. “My father was relentless; he’s okay now,” recalls Hazel, a creative writing major and May 2006 graduate. Besides, how could anyone begrudge the institution that inspired this young writer’s best work, including an award-winning chapbook?

As a top 10 finalist in a competition sponsored by New Women’s Voices, Hazel’s Body & Soul earned publication by Finishing Line Press in December. Her collection of 17 poems was judged against works by writers in varying stages of their careers, both published and unpublished. Hazel wrote most of her poems during an independent poetry project taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Lynn Powell. “What emerged was both wonderful and unexpected,” Hazel writes in her chapbook.

“I didn’t go into my independent study looking to write a body of work,” she says later. “While I was writing I learned to be a lot more honest about my experiences and spirituality, which taught me to be vulnerable by reaching deeper.”

Powell agrees. “Hazel let go of what she thought her poems should say, to discovering what they needed to say. If students are drawn to write because of what they hope to receive from their readers—attention, admiration, status, or fame—very soon they will make the wrong choices in their work. Their art will become contaminated by a desire to please.”

Hazel’s broadening appetite found a bounty of inspiration at Oberlin. A geology class prompted “Move Me” (“Wind River, sweep through my valleys, cut me open, deeper still: channel through, make me a conduit to carry you.”), while an ExCo on becoming a naturalist inspired “On Step-ping Out.” (“Water striders, you who stand on miracles, how did you learn to walk that invisible skin stretched from bank to bank?”)

“I draw inspiration from seeing other people act on their passions, especially artists, and people who have knowledge or talents that I don’t have,” she says. “Oberlin has definitely given me opportunities to do that.”

Hey, Mom and Dad, no hard feelings.

Summertime Companions

Whether for bedside, seaside, mountainside or porch, here are some books which I think would make excellent summer companions.

1. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. I’ve lost track of how many people I have recommended this to, and how many have told me in response that it changed their lives. At the same time, it’s so lively and accessible that it can join a summer reading list without any apology.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel. Magical realism by a contemporary Japanese master, very ably translated.

3. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Some would call this a short story collection, others would say it’s an autobiography. In any case, she’s a brilliant and entertaining writer.

4. Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal. If you don’t know about bonobos, it’s high time you did. De Waal is a leading primatologist, and what he has to say is thoughtful, funny, and surprisingly upbeat.

5. American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets, edited by David Walker. Full disclosure: Walker’s a friend, Oberlin College Press is the publisher. But this is probably the best poetry anthology I’ve ever seen. A terrific bedside book.

David Young’s own recent books are Black Lab (poems), Six Modernist Moments in Poetry (criticism), and The Poetry of Petrarch (translation).

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