The Joy of Journaling for Families

Create a more reflective new year by sharing the benefits of journaling – whether your kids are tots or teens. Learn how journaling for families helps everyone.

As we enter a new year and a new decade, how much time do we take to truly reflect on the past? New research gives us one big reason to grab a journal and pen and take stock of each day. The study, published in Harvard Business Review, suggests our future productivity gets a boost when we take time to reflect.

If you’re hoping to reap the benefits of journaling this year, why not make it a family activity? Children’s book author Trevor Carss says, “If kids reflect on their days, they will become better problem-solvers of life.” Whether you’re new to the practice or have stacks of journals to your credit and want to include your kids, now is your chance. We’ll show you why and how to get started.

Grab a journal and list the benefits

Most people find writing to be a challenge, but it’s also a craft, which means it gets easier with practice. Journaling can be an enjoyable way for kids to write for the fun of writing, says Jillian Webb, director of LearnEarly, a Detroit organization that supports learning opportunities for adults and children.

While young writers can build grammar and spelling skills through journaling, they’re also learning that there is a purpose to writing, Webb says. In school, children are often directed to write to a theme, and journaling can help make that task more fluid.

“Journaling offers the opportunity to set the focus and generate the path to the child’s best effort,” Webb says. As kids write, they can determine if they have achieved their purpose or if they have more work to do. “That helps build the writer’s internal gauge of writing on-topic, which is one of the more important pieces that writing and journaling can offer.”

For children more interested in math and science, journaling offers the opportunity to blend writing and analysis. On the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, neurologist and teacher Judy Willis says when children transform formulas, graphs, and statistics into words, patterns emerge for the brain to process symbolically, giving the memory additional pathways to store complex information.

Your technique: ancient or modern?

When we achieve so much with keyboard and screen, it makes sense to journal online. But studies suggest the act of writing matters to the brain in subtle-yet-critical ways.

A study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education suggests that pencil-on-paper handwriting helps emergent readers because the act of writing letters and letter shapes, even if they don’t connect into words, stimulates the parts of the brain needed for successful reading. And there’s something about writing longhand that helps the memory, too.

“As we move into a more digital world, stepping back in time and doing it the old-school way means you will always have this writing to reflect back on,” says third-grade teacher Renee Wendt of Dove Academy in Detroit, who adds that longhand note taking helped her solidify concepts more readily in the college lecture hall.

Classroom note taking is in your child’s present and future, so why not help establish the pleasure of picking up a pen and synthesizing ideas on paper?

Establishing your habit … and your child’s

For any age child, modeling journaling and offering time to journal together is a good first step for parents, says third grade teacher Renee Wendt of Dove Academy in Detroit. “Journaling is beneficial, even if seems trivial to write one sentence about the day, or journal to figure out the Pythagorean theorem,” Wendt says. “Journaling is a powerful tool to help your brain process concepts.”

Try these four simple steps to make journaling a joint activity for your family.

  1. You’ll want your child’s buy-in, so start with a shopping trip to choose the right journal, especially for the more particular child. Then, spend time personalizing and decorating your journals together. Let your child’s age be your guide, but don’t be afraid to go crazy with colored pencils, markers, stickers, whatever.
  2. Next, negotiate how much time you’ll spend journaling together – and when. Daily or weekly? Bedtime or just after dinner? Sitting close together, or on opposite couches? Once you agree on a choice …
  3. Be accountable to each other in your journaling practice and show up on time. Megan Dutell, creative writer and blogger at Page Flutter, recommends respecting your child’s journaling style, which can be a challenge, especially if your young teen spends the time scribbling in an act of defiance. Stick with your commitment and “let your kids journal their way,” she says. And finally …
  4. Protect that time together at all costs.It’s a date with your child that fosters a shared interest that you might just have for the rest of your lives.

Journaling for babies?

Because infants are capable of expressing themselves, they’re not too young for early journaling, explaining Jillian Webb, director at LearnEarly in Detroit. “The journey could start with observing how the child like to express themselves, and creating space for that expression on a regular basis,” she says.

“Through a head tilt, a hand reaching out for an object, or by bringing a favorite object to an adult, these are all signs of communicating interest. From there, adults can figure out how they can honor that interest for the child.”

Gather these favored objects or take pictures of favorite activities during the day and set aside time for a conversation with your child about them. “There’s great power in adults being a model for children and showing excitement about capturing and reflecting.

“That can be the adult drawing pictures and showing their day through the pictures, or it could be modeling a more traditional way of journaling and then reading aloud to the child,” she says.

A journal for every writer

Many believe journaling is just an elevated form of “Dear Diary.” (We proclaim our love of diaries!) But journaling can be so much more than sharing private thoughts. It can be an outlet for creative writing, scientific analysis, to-do lists, knitting or gardening projects and much more. Here are some popular types of journals and suggestions for getting your child to flip the page and begin to write.

One sentence journal

This keep-it-simple approach is an antidote to writer’s block and requires no more than one sentence each day. If you’re really stuck, write down the last sentence you said out loud, or the next sentence that pops into your head. Chances are you’ll want to write the whole backstory to go with that one sentence. Tip for making it a shared activity: Challenge your child to a “shortest sentence” contest one day, and a “longest sentence” contest the next.

Bullet journal

“BuJo” for short! This is a DIY journaling method designed to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future,” according to creator Ryder Carroll.

Most bullet journalists use a 5-by-8-inch bound journal with dotted pages, like Moleskine or Leuchtturm, but you can use whatever you like.

Visit bulletjournal.com or watch the YouTube video “How to Bullet Journal” with your child and then create your own versions, or visit Carrie Elle’s lifestyle blog for some kid-friendly BuJo ideas.

Visual journal

Journals don’t have to be all words, especially if you recognize your need to express your thoughts and feelings visually. Draw, paint, color, take pictures on your phone, and create a system that works for you. You may already be doing this on Instagram, so add mindfulness and intention to what you capture for a more focused journal, then see what themes emerge. Your creative child may have some suggestions in mind already.

Travel journal

Who doesn’t love reliving a summer vacation deep into the ice storms of February? Armed with a journal or notebook and some fine-point markers, older children can capture travel in real time by describing scenery, people, languages and experiences, while younger children can collect museum tickets, diner receipts, train tickets and every kind of minutiae that can serve as a springboard for many “remember when we … ?” conversations.

Math, science or nature journal

Helping your child create a journal for whatever they are into is a way of honoring their interests, so don’t discount the value of journaling insects, moon phases or quadratic equations. Journaling can help students track progress in their understanding of complex concepts, adds Detroit third-grade teacher Renee Wendt. “Something you journal today might look different tomorrow, and even more different the third time you look at it. With an advanced math calculation, you might focus on one part, but if you take a step back and look at it again, you might make a connection you didn’t before.”

Gratitude journal

When we express appreciation for what we have, we encourage positivity, which can make us happier in general – or so the science says.

Whether you acknowledge the simple joy of a hot breakfast on a cold morning or the consistent love of a partner, voice your gratitude out loud as you write in your journal, so your child will get the hang of the intent.

Individually or as a whole-family project, kids of every age can participate by drawing pictures or writing about what makes them feel grateful.

Journals to try

Need a little nudge to get jotting? Get some inspo with a guided approach.

For Your Kids

  • The Five Minute Journal for Kids: Offers inspirational quotes, prompts and fill-in-the-blanks. Anthropologie stores in Ann Arbor, Birmingham and Troy.
  • My First Draw & Write Journal: One of several options from Lakeshore Learning, this spiralbound journal has space for drawings and words for your little journalist. Shop in Sterling Heights.
  • Big Life Journal: Growth mindset” is the theme of this journal designed to build resiliency and an entrepreneurial spirit, available in versions for kids 7-10 and tweens/teens.

For You

  • Traditional bound journal: Look for the quality paper and variety of formats (dotted, ruled, plain, square grid) that make Leuchtturm1917 and Moleskine the timeless gold standards of journaling.
  • 750 Words: A digital version of the concept of morning pages – three pages of longhand mind decluttering that clears the consciousness for better creativity – this private, online journal lets you review usage stats. $5/month.
  • Five-year journals: A quick, one-sentence entry each day over the next five years is a long-term approach to reflection. Options include The Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal, One Line A Day, or Q&A a Day (this one has a three-year version for kids, or try the One Question a Day: My Life So Far for young adults and older from Urban Outfitters).
  • A companion to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming,the former first lady’s new journal called Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice has 150 prompts and quotes for self-discovery and rediscovery.

When face-to-face conversations are tough

Amy Pierce, mom of three in Sterling Heights, predicted that by late elementary school, her kids would want to talk about difficult subjects. And, given the introverted personality of her oldest daughter, Abby, she wanted to make this as easy as possible.

She got each child a journal strictly for back-and-forth communication with mom. The kids are free to write whatever and as often as they’d like, then leave the journal on Pierce’s bedroom pillow as a signal for Pierce to read and respond.

“Abby really embraced it,” Pierce says. “She would write in it in those middle school years, and it’s how I found out about what her friends were doing a lot of the time. Most of the time it was harmless middle school stuff.”

Abby’s sister Ellen used her journal to keep track of daily activities during the Pierce parents’ first trip away from the kids. Pierce admits that her youngest child, John, prefers to text her in the evenings when he has something personal to share.

Abby, now a college sophomore, wrote her most recent entry just within the last year, and Pierce hopes it’s not the last time. “I would love to continue to do this forever,” she says. “It started the habit of my kids knowing they can tell me anything, maybe not face-to-face, but with a journal.”

Experts call this “dialogue journaling,” and the technique is used by teachers to better get to know their students and give them an outlet for sharing and self-expression. Parents can adopt this at home easily – and may be surprised by how open their kids can be on paper.

Dialogue through journaling helps your child feel like they are being heard, says Detroit third-grade teacher Renee Wendt. “You are taking the time to pay attention to what they are thinking and feeling and showing them you heard them.”

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