It has long been said that writing a diary is beneficial for anyone… although I think there can be drawbacks (like if you become obsessed with your past and repeatedly read old journal entries). In general, however, I believe that the benefits outweigh any drawbacks and that diaries can be very beneficial to children in particular.
My father has long been an enthusiastic diary writer and it was he who encouraged me to start writing my first diary at age nine. For a child, the obvious benefits of diary writing include practising expressing and ordering ideas and communicating on paper, as well as improved spelling and grammar over time. Diary writing is a kind of “meditation” as we commune with our own thoughts and, on a day which has been less than ideal, diary writing can be cathartic. Sometimes things complained about in one diary entry can be a source of amusement when we read them years later, once a problem or set of problems has been overcome. At other times, as we write our way through more serious life events, the act of journaling can be a comfort, a place to vent and a means of understanding, afterwards, why we behaved in certain ways or made particular decisions, particularly some of the tougher ones in life.
Diary Writing for Kids
Where children are concerned, diary writing can begin at any age: even a preschooler’s thoughts can be recorded by an adult. It is important, when recording a child’s speech, to keep it as original as possible. My mother did this with me in exercise books when I was quite young (certainly before I started school). She would write my words on the bottom half of the exercise book (as I got older, she wrote on every second line so I could practise my “writing” on the lines in between). The bit I really liked was that, after I finished writing, I got to draw a picture in the top half of the page. (I was one of those kids who liked drawing). Recording speech needn’t be just for preschoolers, it can be helpful for younger school-aged children, for those who are less confident at writing, or even just for kids who are tired of writing. It’s a great way to spend quality, child-focused time and kids often love hearing their words read back later, particularly by another adult or an older child.
It’s good to try to keep the diary writing a fun activity, without pressure or tension. In our family, the kids don’t write a diary every day. I sometimes have them write down their thoughts after a particularly interesting experience. Recently we travelled to Melbourne, Australia, to visit the children’s grandfather and step-grandmother. I found that, particularly in Melbourne in December when it was very hot, writing journals in the evenings was a good “winding down” activity. I don’t have anything set in stone about how the kids do their writing, the diaries are for them. Sometimes I spell words out to them whilst I’m doing other things like housework, sometimes I sit down at the table with them and actively help them. At other times I let them have completely free reign and, while the spelling isn’t great, they often come up with some quirky and insightful things when writing on their own. We all know our own children and what works best for them on any particular day.
Memories on Behalf of a Child
A friend and her husband recently attended a workshop in preparation for fostering a child. At this workshop, keeping diaries “on behalf of kids” was emphasised. Keeping a journal for a child who has been “uprooted” and had a difficult path through life can play a big part in helping them to heal and move forward. (The workshop also cautioned, however, that some children might be better having their journal only when supervised by an adult, or to have a copy not the original, as emotions can be stirred up. It would be heartbreaking to have such a record destroyed and the child it’s intended for would probably regret not having it further down the track). One woman I know, who has been “Mum” to a number of foster children, created a book for each child, showing his or her personal history. She collected as much information as she could, such as where they were born and their biological parents, various houses they had lived in and, where possible, photographs to go with the story. In some cases tracking down information and photos may not be easy (particularly for an older child who has lived in lots of different foster situations), but it is certainly a worthwhile activity for someone in the role of foster parent: it can help you understand a particular child’s set of circumstances, as well as enabling him or her to make sense of it all. Similarly, for children who have been adopted, an accurate, honest (but also sensitive and empathetic) account of events can be really helpful.
For any child, an account of their very earliest years can be fascinating later on, as well as giving him or her a “sense of belonging”. I have done scrapbooks for our four children: for each one I began with my pregnancy (including photos of me with a big belly and of their “scan”). I usually write and have photographs and I record their milestones and achievements– as well as some less ideal times (chickenpox, fights with siblings), as these, too, are part of the fabric of life. As the years have gone by, I have found it harder and harder to keep up with all four children’s scrapbooks. I just do them when I can. I have a drawer in my desk for each child and when they bring home artwork or certificates from school or kindy, I put them in their drawer to save for their scrapbook. As I say, I call them “scrapbooks”, but they are really photo diaries of the kids’ lives. My older two children really enjoy getting out their “scrapbooks” and reading about what their early years were like: I’ve found the kids enjoy looking at and hearing about their past more and more as they get older (and some kids enjoy it more than others).
You and the Child own the Diary!
Be creative and take ownership of the diary you and/or your child create! It’s for your child, so focus on him or her. I enjoy putting not just the special events, but also ordinary, daily life things which will become special in the future. One of my sons has a page in his scrapbook with games he played with his soft toys at age 4. There are pictures of the toys and I wrote down some of the “conversations” he made them have with one another. Now, at age 9, he enjoys looking back on this. Little things like taking a photo of how their room looks when it is messy, or when it is tidy, or writing about their friends at school can connect the adult your child will become with their “forever years”. Regardless of how good or otherwise our childhood may have been, having such a connection can anchor us as we move from our past, our “forever years”, through our present and into our future.