How to teach a child to write

I love to write. I love to read what other people write. Journals have been part of my life forever. Of course I wanted my children to write their own journals, even before they could hold a pencil.

When they were very young, the children told me or their grandmother their day’s story to write into the family journal. As they grew older, they wrote their own. Later, the older children would write out what the younger ones dictated.

The binders full of those journals are among my most treasured possessions. They radiate enthusiasm and joy and upset and relief and sorrow and lessons learned. They’re full of life as we lived it in years we’ll never see again.

Teaching your children to write journals is largely a matter of habit. If you write in a journal, and your children see you do it, little ones will want to do the same thing. Encourage this.

Don’t know what to write? Start with the basics and you’ll soon develop your own style. Each person has a different sense of what’s important in a day, of what’s worth remembering.

All my children considered food the number one most important item to record in their early journals. One I remember clearly looks like this:

January 3
Oatmeal with honey from Bud’s bees.
Lots of tomatoes from the garden.
Mom’s soup for lunch. David didn’t like it but I did.
Apples and cookies on a hike.
Allan and Edward here for burritos for dinner.
The best thing was that Amber had puppies.

Food, food, more food, plus people and excitement. This was dictated by a four-year-old, written by David – the same one who didn’t like the soup. The same one who, at age 31, doesn’t consider soup to be real food.

The questions I asked the children to write about work for you, in becoming the journal-writing example for your children. The first three were my requirements for them. The others were available in case they wanted ideas to write about. As they grew older, I asked that they write at least one page each day.

What was the best thing about today?

In the worst, most terrible day of my life, I could still answer that question. The best thing on that day was that I had family who loved me.

Other times, the best thing can turn into paragraphs or even pages of wonderful things that filled a day. It’s lovely and comforting to read those entries years later and remember the sense of perfection in those days.

What was the worst thing about today?

Often my answer to this question is “Nothing,” but with six children it was one of their favorites. Often it would be something like, “So-and-so got more cookies than I did.” Or it might be, “I didn’t have time to finish reading the book I started tonight because Mom made us go to sleep.” Once it was, “My tooth didn’t fall out yet and I really wanted that dime for tomorrow.””

What did you learn today?

I learned quite a lot over the years from reading the children’s answers to this question. They were – and still are – interested in many things that haven’t occurred to me. As they grew older, they’d read their old journals and shake their head over having been excited about learning something that, by now, they took for granted. It was fun for them to choose what to write about each night.

What did you eat today?

This wasn’t my favorite question. In fact, I tired quickly of reading about what they ate, but food is very important to children and they loved putting in detailed lists of what they ate, who they ate it with, who prepared the food and, sometimes, who had to clean up after the meal. How else would I have learned about the morning David fixed oatmeal seasoned with dill and garlic? Even the chickens wouldn’t eat it, according to that evening’s journals.

What are your plans for tomorrow?

This was another place where I learned things from reading what the children wrote. In fact, some of their plans were for surprises and I had to “forget” I’d read about them. Mostly, though, I saw growing evidence of their ability to make long-range plans and follow through on them.

Who did you spend time with today?

From this I learned – and so did they – which of their friends they truly enjoyed and which felt more like time-wasters. They learned the value of their time, and that they had the choice of how to use it.

Did you do something wonderful for someone today?

Here, too, could be surprise answers. “”I made Jenny’s bed but it’s a secret so don’t tell her who did it.””

What did you read today?

Reading remains one of my favorite activities, and some of the children also still read as much as they can. Grown-up life interferes with the chance to sit down and read a book, start to finish, but sometimes as young ones they got to do that. Rather than book reports, I preferred hearing about why they liked a book, whether they’d look for another by that author, what it made them think about. These were the things they wrote in their journals.

What are you thinking about?

One of my favorite questions, and one where they most often used the paperclip option.

We did journals on an honor system. If anyone, of any age, wanted me not to read what they’d written in their journal, they folded the page over and put a paperclip on it. Much as I might have liked to, I never read those pages.

That I know of, none of my children currently keeps a journal. Sometimes, but certainly not this week, I mean to go through all the binders full of their old journals and type them up, print copies for them, and copies for me. In the meantime, though, their journals bring me great joy and a sense of family that I feel we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t written them.

Your own children – and you – can write your family lives the same way. Pick and choose among my questions. Add questions that fit the way you live, the things that matter to you. Start small, but be consistent. Do it every single solitary day.

At the end of a month, or a year, put the journals somewhere special. Treat them with the care they deserve. They are a repository of these special childhoods that can outlast all of you.

At the end of a month

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