A Diary For Two

An interactive journal is a journal you can use to communicate with someone close about things that are hard to express verbally. Here's how to use one.
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My daughter Katherine and I had a special moment the night before she left for college. For old time's sake, we pulled out a joint journal that we have kept throughout her growing-up years. It was the end of September, and sitting in front of a cozy fire, I took the book and expressed to her in writing my feelings of pride mixed with sadness. I would no longer get to see her bright smile every day or hear the wonderful stories that spill out of her the minute she walks in the door. For her part, Katherine wrote of both her excitement and apprehension, and, in her typically sensitive way, stopped to reflect that this was a hard time for me. We read our letters out loud, each to the other. When we finished, we were both crying.

You may well wonder, what is going on here? Why are we writing letters when we're sitting right beside each other? First, because you can often say in writing what is hard to say face-to-face. And second, because what you put on paper is permanent and long lasting. That last piece also made the night memorable—and hilarious. Katherine and I proceeded to reread and laugh together over the earlier entries in our book. Since it was begun in 1992 when Katherine was 10, it is a history of her growing up, grappling with problems, embracing life and between the lines, the story of our deepening relationship.

What Is an Interactive Journal?
Mickey Mouse is waving from the cover of Katherine's and my book. On the first page of our interactive journal, I introduce the idea of this "diary for two" to Katherine and lay down the ground rules: This kind of back-and-forth journal is a chance to share the happy things going on in our lives, and to work through problems and conflicts safely.

I told Katherine she could write anything she wanted here—even if she was mad. In fact, I told her, it was a good place to be mad and get it all out. If she was worried, she could tell about that and get me to understand her worry. And I could tell her when I was upset about something and wanted her to see my point of view. These are principles to apply to any relationship in an interactive journal.

Over the years, I would write an entry during the day and leave the book for her to find in her room. If I came home at night after she had gone to bed, I'd often find our journal on the kitchen counter with a story of her day inside. It picked up my spirits and made me smile.

If you would like to have an interactive journal with your son or daughter, pick a blank journal with a cover appropriate to the child's age and interests: Garfield or Pokemon, dinosaurs or pretty flowers. Write—or print—the first letter, setting the tone (friendly, invitational) and outlining the "rules" (this is a private spot between the two of you, a safe place to share triumphs or blow off steam).

An interactive journal can be all of those things, but I wanted to make sure from the outset that Katherine understood the primary purpose of this venture:

Mostly it's a place to let me write down how much I love you and how proud I am of you and the girl you are growing into. So you can always look back and read that, and know how wonderful you are.

It goes without saying how important it is to date every entry, and if your interactive journal partner forgets to do that, you can add the date before answering. It is useful to put the year as well as the day and month on the top of every page. Years later, you will be glad you did.

A Popular Experience
I know of a number of other parents who have kept up journals like this and look back on them fondly, recognizing the bond they have forged and the opportunity to communicate deeply, with respect and openness. In my book Put Your Heart on Paper (Bantam), I tell about a man named David who kept an off-again, on-again joint journal with his son Taylor from the time the boy was 13. When Taylor was 19, he wanted to go on a long trip with his girlfriend. David protested on paper; Taylor wrote back, defending his position. "Dad, it's not about you. Please do not make this an issue separating us."

David dropped it; nothing more was said. Three weeks later, Taylor canceled the trip. He never said why, but perhaps his dad's willingness to be honest and to listen had something to do with his decision.

I have kept interactive journals with each of my four children. Because I started when they were young and we built up trust over small issues, as they became teenagers, we were then able to discuss candidly hot topics such as keeping curfews, getting a driver's license and staying out overnight without permission.

Interactive journals are a way to discuss sensitive issues in any relationship in which it's hard to be candid and honest face-to-face. No matter what the relationship, you'll find that benefits like trust, understanding and, ideally, resolution can result.

How Often Should You Write in an Interactive Journal?
Sometimes Katherine and I wrote every day, especially if there was an important issue on the table. It was a chance for both sides to be heard. Sometimes many weeks passed. This entry after nine months made me laugh:

I am so glad we found this book under your bed! I want to keep writing to you, and read what you write back.

What Should You Include?
The interactive journal is a forum to bring up questions about responsibilities, but remember, requests go both ways. Once when I scolded her in front of my friends, Katherine wrote me a letter about how that made her feel:

I have to say even thow I didn't look like it I was embaressed.

She asked me politely not to do that. When I read what she wrote, I knew what it was like to walk in her shoes, and I agreed to her request.

Reading back these written conversations, I have to laugh at how, well, maternal I often sound, and how frequently I put on the hat of the teacher. But after all, isn't that what being a mom or dad is all about? I deliberately use "big words" and then challenge Katherine to look them up or figure them out from the context.

By the way, there is no time constraint ("constraint" is a sophisticated word; can you guess what it means by the sentence that follows?). You may write back to me whenever you feel like it.

An interactive journal is a place to complain and explain. I wasn't happy that Katherine dropped band; she tells me why she quit. Katherine doesn't want to go to day camp; why does she have to go? I detail the fun and new friends in store there.

Another time, she pleaded to be able to ride her bike off of our block. My answer shows another benefit of this kind of communication. After praising Katherine for being responsible—babysitting, helping out more at home—I begin to answer her question.

I have been thinking a lot about your last letter, and your growing up, and your wanting to go off the block. My first response was, "NO!" and then I started to think about it some more. So, let's talk about it. That's the beauty of writing it down, it gives you a chance to think.

Don't forget to include lots of compliments in your entries to the interactive journal. Pepper your pages with praise:

Being a mom is so great, Katherine, because I am always learning from my kids—more about the world, and how to be a better person. Thanks! I love you.

And what a heart-warmer when you find the compliments coming back at you.

You are the best mother and a great friend. You rock my world.

Scoring Little Victories
An interactive journal catches dreams and celebrates milestones, big and small. It is a chance to simply ask, as Katherine once put it, "How was your day?" And a chance to tell me about hers.

We talked on paper about everything—buying her first bra, getting her period, PMS. Katherine could share how she felt about her first job, and later, write about the experience, initially unsettling, of feeding homeless teens.

Sitting with Katherine that night going over our pages, which span almost a decade, made me realize it's not a journal, it's a journey. And we both have grown along the way.

Take my advice and start a similar excursion today.

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

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