Calling all parents and grandparents!
At the risk of stating the obvious, children are not born knowing how to write personal handwritten notes, much less why or when they should think about writing them. Once considered an essential skill by men and women alike—and a treasure trove of vital information and insight into the past for historians—the art of the handwritten note is being undermined by email and texting, as well as the removal of cursive writing from some elementary school curricula. If we parents and grandparents don't find a way to teach our children how to use one of the most powerful and low-cost communication tools available to us, it will indeed become a lost art. More to be lamented, though, would be to lose the ability to thank, comfort, encourage, and inspire the way only a well-written personal note can do.
I'm not willing to concede to its obsolescence quite yet.
We all learned from someone
I learned to write personal notes primarily from my mother, who had a beautiful mahogany desk in the corner of the family room next to the kitchen, where she kept her stationery, writing implements, address book, stamps, and other exotic paraphernalia that always seemed like a mystery to me. I can still see her sitting at that desk taking care of her correspondence. Today at age 89, she still uses a lovely desk to write notes and letters and pay her bills. How thrilled I was as a young teenager to get a small ladies desk of my own from my maternal grandmother (one I still use today), complete with a secret compartment designed to look like a decorative element! I couldn't wait to emulate my mother by stocking it with my own papers, notes, and pens, and begin writing my own letters there. I am so fortunate that writing letters always seemed like a privilege, not a chore, even though Mom made sure we always wrote notes to thank anyone who had given us a gift or done something nice for us.
Getting a personal letter in the mail is magic to a child
My paternal grandfather, a South Carolina attorney and statesman, was the first person to ever write letters to me regularly, though I'll admit most of his were typed, not handwritten. I still have many of these letters, and they are precious reminders of his love for me and his interest in my development and accomplishments. How long will anyone be able to say, “I have a stack of letters from the past tied together in a special place.” I have many such letters from both of my parents and various special people who have written me over the years.
This same grandfather was a daily journal-keeper, and whenever I visited his home, I admired his shelf of journal books going back to times that seemed to be to be ancient history: he was born in 1879 and was 71 when I was born in 1950. He also encouraged me to write from a very age. He made it magical for me, in fact, by buying me a beautiful leather-bound journal with my name imprinted on it in gold, and he told me whenever I filled up one journal, he would get me another. Its beautiful lined and numbered pages beckoned me to put pen to paper, and while my journal-keeping habits have been sporadic over the years, the pleasure of writing on a blank page has never diminished.
How children learn…
Forgive me this trip down memory lane, but it's all to make a very important point: children learn to write notes and letters first by receiving them, second by seeing people they love and respect writing notes and letters too, and thirdly by being encouraged and taught how to write their own. Perhaps the most important type of personal note anyone can write is the thank-you note. Margaret Shepherd, in The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication, hit the nail on the head when she said,
Children who have learned to write thank-you notes have an extra advantage as they go through life because people who happen to help them once will tend to keep helping them. The earlier they start writing notes, the more they will get the kind of positive feedback that encourages them to write again.
I took a very informal and unscientific poll of several friends and family members I know to be regular note writers and who have sent me some of the loveliest notes I've ever received. As I expected, they all spoke of the influence of someone who wrote to them and the joy they felt—and continue to feel—in receiving a personal note. What surprised me was something else: they all love the feel of a pen in their hand and the sensation of writing on beautifully-crafted paper. The minute they said it, though, I knew exactly what they meant. I am much more likely to reach for pen and paper when I have some notecards or stationery I love.
So those of us who have young children or grandchildren and want to teach them to become note writers have to figure out ways to make it magical, fun, or cool, at least until they're old enough to understand and appreciate the value of this very intimate and personal way of communicating. Thinking back on what motivated me when I was young, I throw out a few suggestions:
- Make it fun and easy. Take your child to your local dollar store and encourage them to select tablets of brightly colored paper and envelopes. Be sure they have a pen or colored pencils and stamps. Many children will love making their own stationery with stickers, markers, glitter glue, or other craft supplies. As they get a bit older, consider treating them to some age-appropriate, personalized stationery, with their return address already printed on the envelope. Use bright colors and bold lettering such as the examples shown on this page. Clicking on the pictures will take you Heartspoken's personalized stationery store with Carlson Craft. If they struggle with writing straight, the paper could even be lined. The Amazon link below this post has several examples of this.
- Do it with them. A child is much more likely to write personal notes if you do it with them. A very young child will need help. Sometimes correspondence may be either dictated or translated by an adult from the child's own words, but if a child is old enough to hold a pen or crayon, I'd encourage them to write, even if it's illegible. For older children, just bring your own stationery out and work on your own correspondence while they work on theirs. If you and your children do well with routines, this can be turned into a ritual, especially after birthdays and Christmas when there might be several notes to write. The ritual might even include a little reward or celebration after you put the letters in the mail.
- Write to them. Let the children in your life experience the fun of getting letters in the mail. Write to thank them for a gift or help they've given you. Write to congratulate them on an achievement. Write just to tell them how special they are. When it's time for them to write notes, it can help to remind them of the pleasure they will be giving the recipient of their notes.
Let's teach our children and grandchildren to write handwritten notes that comfort, encourage and inspire—notes that express gratitude and appreciation. Mastering this simple and inexpensive art will not only be a source of joy and self-confidence for them, but it will also make them stand out from their social and professional peers.