There are acts of independence many kids demonstrate in the earliest years of elementary school: they learn to tie their shoes; they make suggestions (and demands) about the food in their lunch boxes; and they have strong opinions about the clothes they like. The most pleasant surprise of having school-age children, however, has been my older two kids’ requests for a notebook they could keep in their bedrooms. They each wanted a journal, they said, or perhaps they said “diary.” Either way, the mother and the writer in me rejoiced.
Sam, 8 at the time, came up with the idea. During that patch of second grade, his best friend was getting chummier with a different boy in class, someone with whom Sam didn’t particularly click at the time. The friend in the middle didn’t know how to bring Sam and the other kid together. Instead, he took turns playing with Sam and “Sam’s rival” at recess and lunch. When it was Sam’s turn, Sam was thrilled. On the off days, Sam was distraught.
“So can I have a notebook?” he asked me.
Of course I said yes, but I was curious what made him think that a journal would help. Immediately I pictured the hidden box of my journals that chronicled my life from the age of 13 to 25. In those pages I kept a diligent record of every frustration with my family and friends, every moment of unrequited and requited love, and an infinitely less illuminating record of what I weighed along the way. I operated with much less confidence in those days, and I found the notebooks a source of escape and comfort. I never went on a trip without a journal, and I habitually read old ones when I wanted a reminder of how infrequently my past worries came to fruition. Despite the benefits I knew so well of having a private notebook, it never would have occurred to me to offer the same tactic to my 8-year-old son.
Sam said he got the idea from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. Now I had two reasons to feel a debt of gratitude towards those books: they got Sam to read, and now they’d planted the seed of keeping a journal.
When I brought home a red notebook for Sam, he got to work drawing pictures and writing a sentence or two about his best friend and the other kid. I know this because he insisted on showing me the pages. He kept the journal in his nightstand and made a big announcement to his sisters and baby brother that they were forbidden to glance in its direction. Still, he wanted to share his progress with me every day.
I explained to Sam and to Rebecca, 6, who was also in the room, that a journal was for their private thoughts, including complaints they had about their parents and even each other. When Rebecca asked if she could have one too, but not a plain one, I brought her to the store where she selected a multicolored cover complete with a silver sequin ‘R’ in the center. Last year, in kindergarten, she drew pictures in the pages, but this year, having made a leap in her ability to write, she’s been writing poems, songs, and a litany of complaints about Sam and Elissa. (In her eyes, her youngest sibling, Nate, can do no wrong). Again, I know these details because she also occasionally shows me what she wrote.
The only other opinion, other than the privacy issue, I’ve shared with Sam and Rebecca about how to keep their journals is to suggest that they don’t tear out sections when they’ve changed their minds about an issue. I hope they’ll just take my word for it since they’re too young to understand that the power of keeping a journal goes beyond the actual moment of jotting down frustrations and joys. It’s the record of those collected experiences that can prove the most therapeutic. I wrote in my journal whenever I thought I was going to die of embarrassment or when I was down or ashamed about anything. Then, when I had those feelings again, I could go back and read about how things eventually got better, which helped me remember that my current problem would likely go away, too. I only wish I’d never stopped keeping those notes when I was 25 as I could still use reminders like that nowadays.
When I started my blog in 2010 (I was 33), I thought of that forum as a different but equally valuable kind of record keeping. Seeing my kids turn to their notebooks, however, reminded me of the special nature of private notes not intended for anyone else to read. It reminded me of the enormous difference between writing and publishing.
Soon after buying Rebecca’s diary, I went to the store and picked out my own new notebook, a spiral-bound, practical one, which I knew from over a decade of experience made it easier to use the backs of pages. I only write in there once a week, and usually it’s about essay and short story ideas more than anything else now that the angst of my teen years and 20s is long gone. I’m there on the page though, just me and my awful, but familiar handwriting and occasional hand wringing. It feels good to be back.
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