Journal Journeys

"Know thyself" is great advice at any age – and getting to know oneself can also be downright fun. A perfect way to get your kids started on a lifelong journey of self-exploration is to introduce them to the idea of keeping a journal. You may associate diary-keeping with preteen girls, but you can help even very young children get started. When my son Simon was in his teens, he reread the diary entries he’d dictated as a 4- and 5-year-old and mourned that he hadn’t begun when he was 2 or 3!

Why should a kid keep a diary? Here are a few good reasons for your child to begin recording his or her daily life:

  • Catharsis – There’s no safer place to express difficult feelings. Preschoolers and school-age kids have lots of experiences and emotions to cope with. And if your child is in her turbulent preteens, she’s at a particularly suitable time for starting a diary.

  • Insight into growing up and help in dealing with change – Struggling to put her feelings into words adds to your child’s self-knowledge and self-esteem.

  • Better powers of observation and sharpened senses – The diarist turns not only inward to record feelings, but outward to record actual happenings. Before long, your child will be noticing the ordinary in a fresh new way, with an eye toward writing it all down later.

  • Development of a writing style and language skills – In a journal, your child can experiment with language in an unpressured way.

  • A more active imagination – Keeping a diary may inspire your child to try other nonfiction or fiction writing and creative projects.

  • Improved communication and bonding with you, the parent who is helping her with this project – Just remember not to belittle anything your child writes or try to turn her into a little perfectionist. Journal-keeping is supposed to be fun.

    Where and How to Write?

    Almost any notebook will do for a child’s diary. Though tiny notebooks are cute and portable, a larger format encourages experimentation and is easier to use. A medium-sized bound book with blank undated pages works best for children. Your child may prefer making entries with a pencil (it’s erasable, which can be comforting), or she can use colored pens. And keeping a journal on a computer suits some personalities just fine.

  • Rules for journal-keeping? –There are none. Skipping a day or a week is OK. So is mixing formats within a single book – writing about dreams one day and feelings the next. There’s no such thing as "doing it wrong." The only ironclad rule is that you, the parent, respect your child’s privacy at all times.

  • Dear Diary – Help your child choose the diary type that suits his or her personality and needs. For instance, there’s the traditional "personal feelings diary," in which your child is essentially writing to her future self. When my son was 4, he had me write the following entry for him: "Sometimes I get ashamed of myself from Kevin (little brother) because he fights with me, and sometimes Daddy makes me feel ashamed because sometimes he bothers me too much when I’m doing something." Also: "My Mommy forces me to take a bath in the morning and it’s crazy to do that." You can use such dictated revelations to open up a simple conversation with your child about what’s happening at home or at preschool.

  • Other kinds of diaries – These include the dream journal (catch those wispy dreams first thing in the morning); the scrapbook journal, which features pasted-in photos, drawings and mementos, as well as written entries; a writer’s journal, in which your school-age child specifically chooses things or events to describe, such as a conversation overheard in the cafeteria or the threadbare sofa in the doctor’s waiting room; and the family journal, in which a book is left open for all members of the family to contribute thoughts to. This last one can be great fun to begin after a holiday, when each family member may have a different view of what went on.

    Getting Started

    es 4 to 7 – Until your child can write comfortably by herself, have her dictate her entries to you. A line or two a day is fine for teaching the value of writing regularly, but a talkative child may dictate pages at a time. Read back any and all entries as often as your child asks.

    If nothing seems to come to your child’s mind at first, ask leading questions. "What was the most fun you had today?" "Did anything make you angry? Let’s write that feeling down. It might help you feel better."

    Don’t pressure the child who is less comfortable talking about emotions. Even the most mundane entries are helpful in building the journal habit. One evening, when my second son was 4, he had me write the following for him: "Today we drove around and they wouldn’t let people get in the snow unless they lived there. And we tried to go to Mt. Wilson but the road was blocked with a sign that said ‘Road Closed.’" Although on the surface this seems to be a simple accounting of facts, the tiny diarist’s emotion of disappointment clearly shows through.

    es 8 to 12 – Help your child understand that keeping a journal shouldn’t ever be a chore. You may find that your child is more faithful about journal-writing at particular times, such as during a school break or when some big change has stirred up his feelings. At this age, your child may enjoy reading the real or fictional diaries of other children for inspiration (see Resources). Help build your child’s self-concept by suggesting topics such as "Some things I feel good about are …" or "The best thing I’ve done lately is …"

  • Ages 13 and up – Tumultuous changes make the teen years a perfect time for a child to learn to record emotional events. It goes without saying that privacy is top priority here.

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