**This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events as told to me by a close friend, who experienced them firsthand; used with permission.
“She said that I punished her all the time when she was in middle school, but that’s not true,” one of my oldest friends said during a conversation the other day. She was referring to her now-adult daughter, who recently moved out of her house.
“Her experience is still valid, even if you remember things differently,” I replied.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon: A person’s recollection of events doesn’t always match other people’s remembrance of the same occurrence. And when those memories are about things that involve our children — the discrepancies can feel particularly significant.
Most parents have a hard time accepting that their child’s experience with them has not always been pleasant — even when the child is now an adult. We want to be seen in the best possible light, and it can be challenging to accept when our children don’t remember us that way.
My daughter has several memories that do not align with my recollection of events. From my own childhood experiences, I know that two people can have very different perspectives on the same incident. And I would never want my child to feel that her memories are invalidated just because they don’t match mine. So I do my best not to nullify her experience.
Why do parents struggle to accept that their children’s memories of them might not always be positive?
I think it has to do with our self-image. We want to be seen as good parents, and it can be difficult to accept it when our children have an adverse experience.
Our perspectives are shaped by our personal history, social conditioning, self-esteem, and other factors. It’s important to remember that just because our perspective is different, it doesn’t make it wrong — it’s just different.
It’s also important to note that we seldom remember things exactly as they happened. We often remember the last time we remembered an event, not the event itself.
So if you find yourself in a situation where your child’s memories of an event don’t match up with your own, try to be understanding. It might be hard to receive, but everyone has a different perspective. And that’s okay.
The role of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we feel when our beliefs are contradicted by new information. This can lead us to ignore, rationalize, or even forget particulars that don’t fit our existing beliefs.
In the case of parents and their children’s memories, cognitive dissonance can cause parents to downplay, dismiss, or even omit their child’s unfavorable experiences. This is because it doesn’t fit with the parent’s self-image as a good, loving parent.
Cognitive dissonance can also lead to a phenomenon known as the “false consensus effect.” This is when we overestimate how many people share our beliefs and preferences. In other words, we think that because we believe something, everyone else must believe it too.
When it comes to parenting, the false consensus effect can lead us to think that our parenting style is the only “right” way to parent. This can make it difficult to accept it when our children have negative experiences with us.
Empathizing even when you disagree
Every parent was once a child. And many of us have had experiences with our parents where our recollection conflicts with the story our parents tell. This is something to remember when our children come to us with their unpleasant childhood memories.
Cognitive empathy — the ability to understand another person’s perspective — can be helpful in these situations. If we can try to see things from our child’s point of view, it can help us be more understanding and empathetic, even if we disagree with their memories.
It’s also important not to invalidate our children’s experiences. Just because our memories are different, it doesn’t make their experiences any less real.
Apologies can help heal the tender parts
There are some cases where the best thing we can do is apologize to our children, even if we have a different recollection of past events. This shows them that we’re willing to listen to their perspective and that we understand that their experience is valid.
We can’t change the past, but we can change how we respond to it.
It might be challenging to entertain the idea of being a good parent who also makes mistakes, but we are only human, and being human means that we are also imperfect parents.
What matters is how we respond to our mistakes. Do we own up to them? Do we try to make things right? Or do we ignore them and hope they’ll go away?
By acknowledging our children’s perspectives, even when they differ from our own, we can show them that we’re open to hearing their side of the story. We can also let them know that we’re sorry for any pain we may have caused.
And sometimes, that’s all they need.