Making Core Memories

JoshMental HealthLeave a Comment

Have you ever noticed how differently you feel after you’ve done something and put a lot of thought and effort into it rather than just going through the motions? After you’re finished, there’s an unmistakable sense of pride. I can distinctly remember some A-B comparisons from my childhood of the contrast between real effort and doing the bare minimum. I wrote a speech called “We Must Pray” when I was in grade school. I spent a lot of time researching, thinking about the theme of what I wanted to say, and putting together the paragraphs. I don’t remember the governing body hosting the event, but I was set to give this speech at a state level. My family and I traveled to what felt at the time like a faraway land, likely only a couple of hours from our house, and I went through the registration process.

In the weeks leading up to this event, I spent a lot of time practicing and memorizing the speech. I worked on the tone of voice I wanted to convey at key moments, practiced my non-regional diction (yes, that is an Anchorman reference), and memorized every word of the speech. It would be my first time addressing a large audience, but I was very well prepared. I was nervous for sure, but my preparation gave me a steely confidence. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the microphone, took a deep breath, and I nailed it. I was awarded second place in the state for my delivery, and considering this was my first foray into public speaking, and I was elated.

After we got home, news traveled fast about my big performance. I felt like a celebrity in my church. Everyone kept coming up to me and telling me how proud they were of me. I began to feel like I might be on a path to run for office one day. The pastor of my church asked me if I would give the speech in front of the congregation one Sunday morning, and I agreed. At this point, we were weeks, maybe even months out from the state competition. I was riding the wave of confidence throughout that time, and I was so excited for everyone to hear my great speech.

My preparation for that Sunday morning delivery looked much different than leading up to the competition. I figured that I had memorized it so well, and practiced my delivery so often, and had done such an amazing job before that I would crush it. I hadn’t even needed to look down at my notes at the state competition, and this wasn’t even a contest. There would be no pressure in comparison. I don’t know that I looked at my speech once between the time the competition ended and the Sunday morning I was to deliver the speech again.

There was a lot of fanfare that morning. Once again, all eyes were on me, with everyone telling me how proud they were of me and how excited they were to get to hear my speech. There was even a little ceremony where they had framed a copy of my speech with my 2nd place medal, and they presented it like I was winning an Academy Award. When it was time to deliver the speech, I stepped up to the pulpit, and that steely confidence I had during my previous engagement was replaced with sudden and intense dread. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and all of my confidence and bravado came crashing down at once.

I had the speech in front of me on the pulpit. I took a look down at it, said thank you to everyone who was there, and began. It started okay. I was definitely less sure of myself than the last time, but it was going fine. Then I started thinking about the gravity of the situation rather than the speech itself, and I forgot the words. Worse than that, I forgot where I was and lost my place on my printed copy. I went silent, saying an actual prayer as I gave a speech about why we needed to do it. It was an awkward and humiliating moment in my life. It felt like I was standing there silently for hours. I could feel everyone’s eyes penetrating my soul, and I just wanted to be literally anywhere else in the world besides where I was at that moment. Eventually, I just picked a spot on my paper, kept my head down toward the pulpit rather than out toward the audience, and read the rest of the speech. I very much doubt that I picked it up anywhere near where I lost my way, and I’m quite confident nobody understood how I had managed to win some award with this. I wanted to crawl into a hole forever.

The “I’m so proud of you” comments with huge beaming smiles were replaced with sympathetic and disingenuous “You did such a great job” comments accompanied by a hand on the shoulder or back. Luckily I was young and resilient, and my shame dissipated over time. I learned a valuable lesson in humility with that experience, and I also learned that solid results are born out of solid effort. It takes intention and attention to do a thing right.

Throughout my childhood and into my adult life, several other instances stick out as shining examples of the difference between doing my best and just doing enough, but this isn’t a post about that.

One of our recommended resources on the site is the movie Inside Out by Pixar. The movie follows Riley as she navigates through a major life change (moving all the way across the country) and is told primarily through the perspective of her emotions, which are all individual characters in the film, living inside Riley’s mind. It’s a fascinating way to visualize what goes through someone’s mind as they deal with different scenarios.

Early in the film, we learn about core memories. These represent major moments that help shape our personality and our identity. I don’t often consciously think about the “We Must Pray” speech situation, but it may just qualify as a core memory for me. Today, I tend to over-prepare for interviews, conference call presentations, morning meetings with my team, and important conversations with my wife or kids. If I don’t do that, I feel out of control and uneasy, which always negatively impacts the quality of my presentation. This part of my personality was probably built out of more than just the speech situation, but that’s certainly a major contributing factor.


As parents, we have an amazing opportunity to help our children form their core memories, which will play a huge role in shaping their personalities. A big part of being a good parent is to be present, both physically and mentally. Showing up for your kids makes a huge difference in their lives. We have the opportunity, though, to challenge ourselves to do more. To be intentional about supporting their growth.

We created this website around the idea of a community of parents who can share best practices, ask for advice, and draw inspiration from one another. I draw inspiration from other parents all the time. Just this week, two shining examples of parents helping their kids make amazing core memories inspired me to write this post.

I always enjoy watching the Davis family post updates. They’re frequently doing fun and uplifting things together, and they always end their posts with hashtags. Whenever it’s an especially meaningful or significant event, they’ll use #CoreMemories. They’re also Disney people, just like my family, and this week I was able to watch an exciting series of events. They planned a surprise Disney trip for their three children. They then shared updates throughout the trip as the kids went from thinking they were running some errands to starting to be suspicious that something was going on to finally figuring it out and being over the moon excited. The best part is that they could stay in the same room they had stayed in several years earlier and captured a picture of the kids at the same spot. To pull off a surprise vacation in the same room your family stayed at on vacation years earlier takes on-purpose planning and intention, and it’s absolutely the stuff that core memories are made of.

At the same time, my friend Clark and his family were wrapping up a Disney trip of their own. They posted a video with the context that the kids think they are packing up to go home, and then there is a knock on the door. A letter slides underneath, and one of the kids gets it. Clark grabs it, opens it, and says, “Oh no, no, no. We’re not doing that. No way.” and then he rips up the letter and throws it away. Shortly after that, a couple of more letters come through, and then tons of them come flying from all directions, just like what happened to Harry Potter at the Dursley residence in the first book/movie. The oldest child was able to snag one of the letters and read it out loud. All of the kids had been accepted to Hogwarts, and they’d be traveling to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando that day. What an amazing and creative way to not just create a nice surprise for the kids but make it a truly memorable experience.

It’s a coincidence that both of those stories involved Disney trips. Sure, it’s a magical place, but families can create core memories anywhere with a little effort and creativity. Many times it is about stumbling onto something fun and then creating a tradition out of it. My daughter went through a phase when she didn’t want to go anywhere without her mom. If I needed to take her somewhere, but my wife wasn’t going, it was always a struggle. Then one day, in anticipation of needing to take her somewhere, I called her over to me early in the day and told her I needed to whisper something to her. I asked her if she would be interested in going on a “secret adventure” with Daddy later. I told her what we planned to do and that it would be fun for just us! She got very excited about that idea and then thought about it most of the day. When it was finally time to go, she couldn’t wait. No fight, no fuss.

The secret adventure revelation shifted that first trip from being a dreaded time away from Mommy to an exciting time to explore with Daddy. I made sure while we were gone to do everything we set out to do but also paid extra special attention to her. Since that first secret adventure, we’ve had many more. It has strengthened the personal connection between my daughter and me dramatically, and it’s something that we both look forward to. What started as an idea to get my daughter to run some errands with me without a fuss has turned into a meaningful time of bonding. I hope that these secret adventures will always be as special for her as they are for me.

I think it’s imperative to realize that these meaningful moments that often form core memories aren’t always happy, and they don’t have to be. Going back to Inside Out, Joy is very clearly the head honcho of the 5 emotions. She is trying to make sure Riley is happy all the time, trying to control everything.

But the insistence on happiness has its discontents. As a manager, Joy is focused above all on controlling and containing Sadness. She thinks she needs to keep her gloomy co-worker’s hands off Riley’s core memories. These golden, shiny orbs will be ruined if they turn blue. At one point, Joy draws a small chalk circle on the floor and instructs Sadness to stand inside it, not touching anything lest she wreck the upbeat mood.

That’s a pretty powerful metaphor for repression, of course, and “Inside Out” turns a critical eye on the way the duty to be cheerful is imposed on children, by well-intentioned adults and by the psychological mechanisms those grown-up authorities help to install. “Where’s my happy girl?” Riley’s parents are fond of saying when she seems down, and the forced smile that results is quietly heartbreaking. Not that Riley’s mother and father are bad people. We see that their own heads are just as crowded as hers. They also have their own external worries and stresses, including a new house, a fledgling business and a child on the brink of momentous changes.


It’s amazing how deeply layered many of the Pixar films are, and Scott’s take on the movie feels right on point to me. The “Sadness” character being a metaphor for repression is such a complex and insightful thought. Her parents absolutely seem to mean well, but asking Riley to smile when she doesn’t have the feelings inside her to match the smile is more about making themselves feel better than about her. A.O. Scott ends that same article by saying, “Sadness, it turns out, is not Joy’s rival but her partner. Our ability to feel sad is what stirs compassion in others and empathy in ourselves. There is no growth without loss, and no art without longing.” There is a reason that the core memories go from being solid yellow (all happy) to multi-colored by the end of the movie.

When our kids feel sad or mad, for me, the instinct is to try to help them stop feeling that way. In my mind, being sad or angry is negative, and I don’t want my kids to have to experience negative emotions, so I want to step in and help them. This is dismissive of how they feel, and if we dismiss those feelings enough, they will eventually try to repress them and keep them locked away. That’s extremely dangerous, though, because eventually, those feelings buried deep down will come roaring back, and they won’t know what to do with them.

I think it’s important for us to acknowledge how a child is feeling and help them understand the emotions and what to do with them. If you told your child to not climb on that or they were going to fall, and they’re not careful, and they fall, the knee-jerk reaction is first to make sure they’re not badly injured and follow that up 0.001 seconds later with an “I TOLD YOU NOT TO CLIMB ON THAT!” The child is aware that you told them not to climb on that. They have already fallen at this point. That can’t be changed, and what they need from you is not to pile onto the physical pain of the fall with a verbal onslaught about how they should have listened, but rather support working through this wave of emotions.

“I saw you fall, that must have hurt. Can you show me where it hurts? I understand that probably scared you, I’m here for you.”

Once the traumatic part is over when the crying has stopped, everyone is calm and has returned to their normal state of mind, you should still absolutely have a conversation about listening to instructions. Maybe you make a point to talk about it later, before bed.

“Do you remember earlier when I asked you not to climb on the _______? I know sometimes it seems like I ask you not to do things a lot, but it’s because I’m looking out for you and want you to be safe. If I ask you not to do something like that, you must listen to me. Luckily you were okay today, but you could have gotten much more hurt. Do you think you can remember what happened today and do a better job listening to me next time?”

Having this conversation at this point will be much more effective. In the heat of the moment, right after the fall, while the child is still crying, they’re not going to be capable of listening to reason. Both your and the child’s adrenaline will be pumping, and you’re likely to get frustrated by the child’s inability to take in your message, which will continue to escalate the situation. You will still want to talk about it soon enough after it happens that it is fresh on everyone’s mind, so your child can fully understand the gravity of the situation, but after everyone has completely calmed down and can have a conversation about it.

Handling sad moments, outbursts of anger or moments when your child disappointed you with a decision they made the right way can go a long way toward forming core memories that are made up of a complex web of multiple emotions. If your teenager gets his or her heart broken by their first true love, it’s a delicate situation. They’re unlikely to want to open up and talk about it, and they’re likely to be feeling alternating emotions almost constantly. It’ll be a chance, though, for you to help provide them with advice, guidance, perspective, and a moment for you to teach your child how to use problems or obstacles as advantages. They probably won’t be able to see it at that moment, but lessons learned from the most challenging situations often make the strongest and most lasting impressions. If you help direct those impressions to be positive rather than negative, you can help change the trajectory of your child’s life in a meaningful way. You’ll not only help them create important core memories, but you’ll be a part of them.

Topics for Discussion

  1. What is one of your core memories? What were the biggest influences on creating them? How much do they impact your personality and your identity?
  2. What specific things can you do to be more intentional in helping your child create great core memories?

Sources & Additional Reading

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