Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Have You Written a Letter Lately?

Does your child know how to send a letter? In the electronic age in which we live, I would imagine that many of them have never done so. One might even confront a high school graduate who does not know how to address an envelope. I read an article which stated that in Great Britain, the Royal Mail sends almost 70,000 items daily to the National Returns Center to try to figure out the intended recipient of the letter, as they are addressed incorrectly.

Is there a value in letter writing? I recently had the discussion with someone as to whether writing a hand-written thank you note is old-fashioned. E-mail, texting etc. are “here today and gone tomorrow” as they are mostly deleted. Historians even wonder how historical record will change as we no longer have insight to characters and events based on letters written. One writer, Bruno Somerset, wrote, “The danger is that we will become the first generation in history with no written record of ourselves. If George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Ernest Hemingway had only used e-mail, would we have the same record of them that we possess through their letters and journals today? If Jefferson had sent text messages to Adams, think what would have been lost to history.”

I don’t want to sound outdated, but there is some value in letter-writing. How about writing a letter to your child? Recently I read a blog suggesting that would be a cherished holiday gift. In this letter we can tell our children how we feel about them and what about them makes us proud. We assume they know all this already- but once they see it in black and white, it is more impactful. These letters will be saved and reread as they grow older. And, how about a quick note in a lunchbox? “Good luck on your English test. I know you worked hard and I’m proud.” They may quickly hide it so their friends won’t see, but it is often appreciated.

Recently, I came across a book called Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self. In this book, 75 celebrities wrote what they would say if they came face to face with themselves at age 16. J.K. Rowling who wrote the introduction to the book and was a contributor said, “’Be yourself. Be easier on yourself. Become yourself, as fully as possible.’ Attempting to isolate those life lessons I could pass back to the girl I used to be was a truly illuminating exercise. It made me look at my 17-year-old and remember, in a more powerful way than ever before, just how raw and vivid life is for her…” This exercise of writing a letter to your past self may be an interesting way to understand your teenager better. Perhaps you may even want to share the letter with your teen as it will inevitably share some important lessons for him/her.

In 8th grade Advisory our students wrote letters to their  parents. It began as a discussion as part of our “Relationship with Parents” Unit. We asked them, “Why is it sometimes so hard to tell your parents exactly what you need?” Some responses were- they judge you right away, sometimes it gets you in trouble, you feel like they don’t agree, you are embarrassed to admit some things to them, they don’t have the time etc. We then discussed that despite all these obstacles, we cannot expect them to understand us if we don’t tell them what we need. They cannot read our minds. That is what this “letter writing” activity was all about. The exercise began with a letter to you.

Dear Parents,
You know, how sometimes we misunderstand each other- or at least you don’t quite “get” me? I thought that it might be easier for you if you had an instruction manual so you can figure out what makes me tick. Read this guide carefully, and feel free to ask any questions. Thanks for listening.
Good luck,
Your loving and adorable 8th grader
They then actually created along with this letter an Instruction Manual all about them. Just like a new product comes with a booklet explaining all the features, so, too this booklet is designed to explain all their features to their parents. We had asked them to share the booklets with their individual parents. (We imagine that since it was not mandated, most of them did not show the booklets!). Often, it is difficult for teens to tell their parents how they feel. We encourage this old-fashioned exercise of letter-writing (or in this case, “manual-writing”) so that it is easier for them to express how they feel, and that parents can read and absorb what they have to say at their own pace.

In an era when the U.S. Postal Service may be closing 3,700 locations due to the lack of mail and letter-writing, I am championing the use of the obsolete letter. It is a wonderful way to create a history and a relationship with your child.

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