I like to think my four kids will always remember the grand gestures we made during their childhoods: the time we got front-row seats at the circus and let them eat unlimited cotton candy; the pirate-themed birthday party that involved treasure buried in a sandbox and handmade skull-and-crossbones hats; our vacations to Disney World.
Sure they will we have the photos and videos to guarantee it. But I've come to realize that it's not only the time-consuming and expensive efforts that earn "remember whens." As often, it's the little stuff that sticks in children's minds. Some simple ways you can forge the kinds of memories your kids will reminisce about at future family gatherings:
You're dealing with little people for whom the whole wide world is big and new. You can use this to your advantage.
Elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary by making an event out of it. My grandmother used to pretend to push our car as my mom backed it out of the driveway when we were leaving. My siblings and I eagerly anticipated this and now encourage our own mom to do the same for her grandchildren.
More easy ideas:
Each fall, plant a few bulbs with your child. Mark the spot and then watch them come up the following spring.
Give your child a special plate or mug that will be used only on his birthday.
Go outside in pajamas to look at the stars; bonus points for finding a couple of basic constellations like the Big Dipper or Orion's Belt (that's the three stars lined up in a diagonal row).
Fortunately, a child doesn't quickly outgrow her ability to appreciate the little things. On a recent trip to Arizona with my 12-year-old, we visited the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and did some fantastic desert hiking. She liked it all, but her favorite memory of the trip? The plane ride. Second favorite? A room-service hamburger delivered with those cute mini-ketchup bottles.
Show Your Silly Side
Kids like goofiness. It's a trait they don't often associate with their parents, so they're thrilled and surprised to see you let loose.
Things like silly string, shaving cream, and crazy hats amuse toddlers on up. One Christmas, my husband gave a musical instrument bongo, kazoo, maracas, zither, accordion, and ukulele to each family member. Happy cacophony ensued. And everybody's still talking about the time we popped fake bad teeth in our mouths for snapshots we then sent to our dentist.
Invent silly songs. Just pick any sing-along tune and make up new lyrics together. We created a family anthem during a long, boring car trip and now we sing it on every long, boring car trip. One bathtime years ago, I started to sing a jazzy tune called "The Bubble Race," based on a poem I'd written when I was a kid: "I've got bubbles in the tub, I've got them to rub and scrub." It may not be Grammy material, but all of my kids know it by heart.
Another random act of silliness has the bonus benefit of improving our family portraits. First, we take a regular shot with everybody smiling at the camera. Then we say, "Okay, a silly shot!" and everyone makes faces. Then we take another regular shot, which usually turns out to be the best one we've loosened up after the goofy shot and our smiles are genuine.
Follow Your Child's Lead
You're not the only imagineer. Some of the most enduring family rituals begin almost accidentally when your child likes how something is done, then wants to do it exactly the same way the next time.
Think about the things that "always" happened when you were growing up. In my childhood, for example, my mom always made me a birthday cake with orange frosting because that was my favorite color. After church on Sundays, my dad always played polka music because my sister and I loved dancing wildly to it.
What do your kids love? Do those things...again and again and again. There's a cumulative comfort in curling up together for bedtime stories every night, building sand castles at the beach every summer, and driving around to see houses decorated with Christmas lights every December. And nothing starts a routine like being routine about it.
Perhaps the only thing more memorable than a routine is breaking it. Since we rarely eat out as a family, it's an event when we do, and my kids remember each and every place. So shake things up:
Break the rules.
Have a family pajama party and let your kids stay up way past bedtime. Host a picnic on the floor in your living room, where they're not usually allowed to eat.
Do things you normally skip.
Say yes to the merry-go-round you come upon in a park. Stop for ice cream when you're in the mall, or visit a humane animal shelter even if you're not impulsive enough to leave with a puppy.
Change your schedule.
Serve dessert in the morning and breakfast at night.
Name What You Do
A good moniker makes everything more grand, especially in the vivid imagination of a preschooler. My husband is particularly gifted in the art of transforming the blasé into the Most Magnificent Occasion Esteemed by All. For instance, we have:
Family Folding Night: Every child sorts his or her own clothes from a humongous mound while watching old TV shows on DVD in the family room.
The Person of the Day: An arbitrary award consisting solely of an announcement and a hand-shake given for such outstanding achievements as the unprompted cleaning of one's bedroom.
Children's Choice Dinner: An evening of culinary variety, like macaroni and cheese and sloppy joes.
Made-up holidays are another way to boost family closeness. My sister holds an annual Mommy and Louisa Day with her daughter, and a Mommy and Joe Day with her son. They go out to eat just the two of them and pick a special activity.
Create Kids-Only Spaces
Every child needs downtime alone to dream and recharge, especially by age 3, and yours will remember just-for-kids haunts long after they're outgrown. My kids' unforgettable hideaways include the plastic play structure that lived in our living room for years and a peach tree under whose branches my oldest daughter and her friend shared picnics.
Setting aside a private place for your kids is simple. You can throw a blanket over a small table or make a reading nook in a closet.
Talk About the Good Times
Ultimately, you can't control which things your children will giggle about or shake their heads over in the years to come. You can nudge the process along, though. After a vacation, or at the end of a day that contained a special outing, I like to debrief: "What part of the trip did you like best?" "What was your favorite thing about today?"
Sometimes I'll look for links between the present and my kids' past. If a place we've visited is in the news even if it's something as tenuous as triplet lion cubs being born at the local zoo I'll ask, "Do you remember when we went to the zoo and rode that little train?"
Making scrapbooks or writing stories about trips and celebrations is a fun way for older kids to preserve memories. On my kids' birthdays, I bring out their baby books, which have pages describing past birthdays through age 5.
Since she turned 4, one of my daughter Page's favorite activities has been poring over old photo albums. "Oh, I remember that bib!" she'll sigh. Or, "Remember when that boy bit me while I was sitting in the green toy car and I started to cry?" She's more likely remembering seeing that series of pictures than the bib or the biting incident.
Then again, who am I to say what bits and pieces of her childhood lodge in her heart and mind? All I can do is try to facilitate a life that's mostly made up of happy bits.