Family Reminiscing and Gratitude Journals: Helping Children Give Thanks as They Remember
Just think – the journal you are keeping now might someday benefit your grandchildren.
What? You don’t want anyone to read your journals? I agree, many of my teenage diaries may not paint a perfect picture of myself for future generations. Yet, I hold out hope that reading about those childish, dramatic, imperfect moments in my thirteen-year-old diary may help my descendants feel more connected to me.
This is why I write in my journal – to connect with whoever might read it someday. Yet, reading journals of ancestors isn’t the only way journals can benefit children. Children gain a stronger identity as they write about their own lives and try to fit their own story into their family’s narrative. In Remembering and Reminiscing: How individual lives are constructed in family narratives, Robyn Fivush of Emory University shares research showing that the stories children tell about themselves helps shape their identity.
In adolescence, we see the beginning of a life narrative that links events across time and places the self in relation to others, embedded in an unfolding human drama of interconnected stories. How these stories are constructed in family reminiscing remains critical for adolescents’ developing sense of self-understanding. (Fivush, 50)
Fivush emphasizes the importance of children fitting their narratives into a larger family narrative, including the stories of their parents and ancestors.
These stories are often long and embellished, with all family members participating in the retelling, indicating that these stories are often told and enjoyed. Provocatively, families that tell more of these kinds of family stories over the dinner table have adolescents who know more of their family history, and also display higher self-esteem and lower levels of internalizing (anxiety, depression) and externalizing (aggression, acting out) behavior problems. These findings point to the critical importance of placing one’s own life in the context of familial history that provides a framework for understanding one’s self as a member of a family that extends before one’s birth and provides the stage on which one’s individual life will be played out. One’s own story is embedded in the stories of others in the past and in the present. (Fivush, 51)
Fivush found that parents have an important role in guiding the narratives that children tell about themselves. Young children are learning how to interpret and evaluate their experiences by reminiscing with their parents. Parents support and guide their children as they remember events and find meaning in them.
Patterns of individual, gendered and cultural differences in early parent-child reminiscing as related to children’s developing autobiographical narratives suggest that children are learning how to interpret and evaluate their personal experiences in these early interactions. Parents, and especially mothers, who scaffold elaborated, richly detailed narratives of the past, focusing on emotions and evaluations, have children who come to tell their own personal narratives in more embellished, emotional, and evaluative ways. (Fivush, 50)
How can parents “scaffold” the stories their children tell about themselves? Elder Henry B. Eyring, in a talk entitled “O Remember, Remember,” tells about the way he “scaffolded” and supported his family’s narrative by creating a family “gratitude journal.” It began when he came home late one night from a church assignment and his father-in-law was there helping with a home-improvement project. Elder Eyring was then inspired to write the gratitude he felt in a journal for his children to read one day. They would then be able to look back and see the divine help that their family received.
From then on, Elder Eyring wrote daily the ways that he saw God’s hand in his family’s life. When his children were older, he gave them each a copy. He said,
The years have gone by. My boys are grown men. And now and then one of them will surprise me by saying, “Dad, I was reading in my copy of the journal about when …” and then he will tell me about how reading of what happened long ago helped him notice something God had done in his day. (O Remember, Remember)
Elder Eyring’s story shows that the way he reminisced with his family helped shape his children’s identities. As he looked over his life events with gratitude, his children began to do the same. We can guide our children’s reminiscing and journaling through the lens of selected themes such as gratitude, resilience, kindness, curiosity, faith, learning, and service. How do you want your children to remember their experiences?
Remember, it’s the guided journaling that really helps children make meaning out of their experiences. The more elaborative, richly detailed, and focused on emotions and evaluations the memory telling is, the more helpful it is for the children as they establish their identity. Simply writing in a journal is not as helpful as evaluating experiences with the scaffolding and support of a parent.
This Thanksgiving week, I wanted to practice more gratitude with my children. Here is a gratitude journal page that I created to use with my children to help them give thanks and reminisce about experiences from the past year. This is more of a jumping off point to spark guided reminiscing than a place for kids to write long journal entries. Happy Thanksgiving!
More about the potential for journals and diaries to help children: How Diaries Can Link Hearts and Lives: “The Diary of Howard Hunter” Author Interview.