Making Memories: How Old Does a Kid Need to Be to Remember a Vacation?

Will he even remember this beach vacay? (Oliver McCloud/Flickr)

Most of us will have memories of a family vacation we took as achild. My earliest vacation memory is from a trip to Corfu in Greece when I was around 4 years old.

I remember playing in the sand with my sister and splashing around in the shallow waves on an inflatable dragon. Next thing you know, I’m floating 50 yards from the beach on this thing, and my parents are screaming frantically from the shore begging for someone to save me.

Some random guy came to the rescue – he swam out, fighting the rip tide that was whisking me further and further away, to save me from ending up on the wrong side of the Mediterranean Sea.

The main picture in my head of this incident is my parents’ relieved-but-angry response once I was back on dry land. They have never let me forget it.

Aside from that one 20-minute moment during the seven days we were there, I don’t have one single other memory. At 4 years old, this was all I could manage to hold on to.

Despite my faded (and slightly traumatic) recollections, a recent U.S. Travel Association survey found that not only do family vacations create lasting memories, but many adults also say that their most vivid childhood recollections are of family vacations.

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So how old does a child have to be to remember being on vacation? And what factors affect the retention of those memories?

“It was surprising to learn that some of people’s most vivid childhood memories are of family vacations that happened when they were as young as 5,” said Regina Corso of Harris Interactive, who conducted the poll of more than 2,500 adults and 1,100 youth for the U.S. Travel Association.

“The age at which a child can remember a vacation can vary from child to child,” explains social psychologist Susan Newman. “But parents want to be sure their children are old enough to enjoy and be able to do whatever the vacation plans cover. The age for this tends to be around 5 or 6.”

There are also several things that may boost a child’s ability to retain memories from early childhood trips including repetition, reflection, and mementos.

“Going back to the same destination annually, talking about the vacation and what fun you had with your children, or buying keepsakes can all help store – or ignite – memories of the time and place,” Newman says.

Many people recollect nothing but happy, exciting snapshots from their first adventures.

Cape Cod can be a memorable destination. (JD/Flickr)

“I remember being on the beach in cape cod with my brother and sister. I just remember it being warm and playing in the sand,” shares Mara Rapaport. “I had no sense of time and could have stayed there forever.”

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But interestingly, when I asked people about their own ‘first’ memories from a family break, many seemed to mostly remember the bad stuff.

“My first memory of being on vacation was when I was around 7 or 8 years old, and we were at a holiday camp,” reveals Linda Khatir. “We used to drive there from our home and I would get so car sick. Also there was this guy who worked there who dressed as a pirate and would throw all the kids in the pool. I was terrified of him because I couldn’t swim.”

Just like my own experience, Linda clearly remembers this occasion because of fearful feelings.

“The first trip I remember was on a river boat with my parents,” shares Thomas Johnson. “I would have been about 6. The gap between the boat and the side of the river terrified me. It seemed like a huge ravine and I was constantly worried about falling into it. I still get that slightly apprehensive feeling anytime I get off a boat.”

“No question that negative memories are just as likely to be stored as the positive ones,” claims Newman who authored Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.

“What parents see as positive, their children may dislike. Also, if something happens that frightens a child, it will probably stick with them. If not terrible, those memories may turn out to be the ones that become part of family lore and are laughed about years later.”

So how do these memories impact us as an adult?

Memories made with the family are priceless at any age. (Thinkstock)

Whether bad or good, we remember these memories more clearly than school events, birthdays, or other positive occasions throughout our early childhood, according to the Harris Interactive Survey into family vacations.

And these memories help mold our behavior and our relationships with family members. Both our parents and siblings, and the future families we build ourselves.

“Childhood memories remind us of family times and help to secure our bond to parents and siblings or other family members. They are the glue that holds family together and quite often, the experiences we had with our parents are ones we try to repeat with our own children,” explains Newman.

Adds Corso: “Families that take time to travel together will have stories to share for years to come.”

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