Every person has one. For me, it is a cardboard box that used to house a pair of pink snow boots. At some point, I decorated it with stickers of koala bears and unicorns. I don’t take this box down from the top shelf of the closet very often, but when it does come down, I know the rest of my day will be spent in reverie.
Tucked inside this box are birthday cards from my best friend, invitations to weddings of friends from college, programs from high school band concerts, and ticket stubs to Duran Duran and Back to the Future. As I wade through the tiny school photos and necklaces my kids made for me while they were at summer camp, I notice a letter my Grandma wrote to me while I was in college.
My Grandma and I were always close. I grew up in the house next door to her, and even though that arrangement was anything but great for my mother, it was awesome for me. When I went away to college, Grandma would write letters to me about her flowers and her garden. She would write about going to drink coffee at Wendy’s on Sunday with her friend Louise, and she always seemed to include some funny anecdote that she would punctuate with a “ha” written in the margin and underlined.
Unfortunately, I may be one of the last generations to have the experience of looking back on handwritten letters from a grandparent. My own mom, always a great communicator, was more modern in her approach. She would forward funny emails to her daughters from time to time, and in later years she friended my nieces and nephews on Facebook. Even though the sentiment was the same, there’s nothing quite like holding a piece of yellowing paper that shows the handwriting of a woman gone for two decades.
How do we teach our children the importance of writing letters?
1. Share your box of letters with your children.
Show your children how much you cherish these letters. I’m not one who keeps “stuff,” so these items are especially meaningful. Besides letters from my Grandma, I also have the letter my boyfriend (now husband) wrote to me on a roll of toilet paper when we were in college together. (Yes, I married the guy who wrote to me on toilet paper. I thought it was so original!) Sharing these items with your children will not immediately turn them into letter writers. They may even roll their eyes at you. I get that a lot.
2. Encourage your children to write thank you notes
Who are we kidding? You can’t just encourage a 14-year-old boy to write a thank you note. You need to make him, as you sit by his side, holding his PS4 ransom. Have them create your own postcard design to make it more fun.
No one likes to write thank you notes, but I’m sorry, it is still considered good manners to write a hand-written thank you note for formal occasions. I’ve loosened my standards a bit in the last years and allowed my kids to text their aunts telling them “thanks for the birthday card,” but for formal occasions such as graduations, religious celebrations, and weddings, a hand-written note is still the standard.
This is difficult for children of this generation to do. Not only do they have to write something without the benefit of the backup key and spell check, but they also have to figure out how to “sign” their name. Seriously. All three of my children when faced with the task on how to physically sign their name at the bottom of a note, complained that they didn’t have a real signature. Kids don’t use cursive anymore and writing their names that way feels awkward to them. That’s another benefit for hand-writing letters. It helps children develop their own signatures.
3. Teach your children how to stand out from others by writing personal notes.
Your children are probably used to competition. With the prevalence of youth sports across America, kids know from an early age that if they want a spot on a team, they are going to need to practice and perform better than the kid across the street. This competition will continue in all aspects of their lives from competing for scholarships, admissions into college, and then careers. Teach your children that writing personal letters or notes will help them in this process. Any time your child interviews for a position, show them how to hand write a thank you note. You’ll also need to teach them how to address and stamp an envelope. Hand-written thank you notes will help them stand out from the crowd. It impresses people.
4. Use letter writing to show gratitude
Finally, teach your child how to write letters of gratitude. Begin this process when your child enters grade school. Every year in May, schools across the U.S. celebrate National Education Week. Have your students write letters to their teachers and other school staff members thanking them for the year. Trust me, those letters will be cherished much more than the Starbucks gift card you stuck in an envelope at Christmas.
Letter writing doesn’t have to be a painful process. Let your child pick out fun stationary. They may even get a kick out of going to the post office to pick out special stamps. Depending on the age, don’t assume they will finish all the necessary thank you notes in one day. Spread the task out over a week.
Finally, model this behavior! Write letters to your kids. Write letters to your own parents if you are lucky enough to still have them with you on this Earth. Express your feelings in the form of a letter. Keep the tradition alive!