Does handwriting really matter anymore?

A grandmother is horrified by her grandson's penmanship, but his mother doesn't worry at all.

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    Dot your i's, cross your t's: A third-grader practices cursive writing in St. Paul, Minn.
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"Promise you won't be mad."

That conversation opener, uttered by my mother, always has the effect of making my stomach muscles tense and the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. I'm on instant alert since I know that whatever she is about to say is undoubtedly going to sting.

"What?" I asked warily.

"I got Joe's thank-you letter in the mail," she began.

Then my stomach began doing somersaults and the hairs on my neck were curling. While I might get upset whenever my mother criticizes me, I get overprotective whenever anyone says something about one of my sons, even (perhaps especially) their grandmother.

"What?" I repeated, a touch more testily.

Joe had written the thank-you letter with no prompting from me – which I thought was pretty good for a 17-year-old who often doesn't remember to get out of bed in the morning without a lot of loud prompting.

"It's about his handwriting," she said. "It's terrible! It looks like chicken scratches!"

My stomach unclenched, and the hairs on the back of my neck returned to normal. This kind of criticism didn't bother me an iota because my mother was right: Joe's handwriting is terrible, although I think she's being a tad generous when she calls it "chicken scratches." It looks like what one might do with a dirty fingernail in lieu of a pen.

"I know," I agreed.

"Well, aren't you going to do something about it?" she demanded.

"Nope," I said.

"Why not?"

"Mom, I work at a high school," I reminded her. "I've seen a lot of handwriting and Joe's is about par for the course."

My mother, a retired schoolteacher who happens to possess clear, beautiful handwriting, sniffed loudly. "That's no excuse," she said.

Perhaps not, but in the great scheme of things, I refuse to get upset over my son's lousy handwriting. Handwriting, like so many other things that were once deemed vital – such as ballroom dancing and learning Latin – doesn't seem all that important anymore.

My job involves helping students with their reading and writing skills. During my first day, I had students come in and announce that they "hated" writing. At first I assumed that they didn't like writing assignments – themes, compositions, and book reports.

Nine times out of 10, I was wrong. They meant that they disliked picking up a pen or pencil and putting it to paper. Writing uses muscles in their hands that aren't used very often. Those hands have been trained to flash across a keyboard, fiddle with a mouse, or manipulate a game controller. The finer motor skills needed to neatly cross t's and dot i's are fairly underdeveloped. They are able to text on their cellphones with their hands in their pockets, but they can't write capital Z's in cursive. Hence, they dislike handwriting.

However, put them in front of a computer screen with their assignments, and themes, compositions, and book reports can be produced at an astonishing rate. They tend to write more and put far more effort into their work when they can type it. And what they print out is much easier to read, and grade, than its handwritten counterpart.

When Joe was younger, I worried a lot about his handwriting. As the years passed, I learned that as a parent I was going to have to pick my battles. I could force him to sit at the kitchen table and practice cursive for an hour every day or I could let it go, knowing that the school district wasn't holding him back because his handwriting was awful. If they could tolerate it, so could I.

Joe wrote another thank-you letter to his grandmother after a recent birthday. He typed this one on his computer, and in it he listed all the reasons he was happy that she was his grandmother – something he'd never have done if he'd handwritten the letter.

My mother called after she received the letter in the mail.

"Tell Joe I love the way he writes," she instructed me. "I think that boy might write a bestseller someday."

Maybe. But if he does, I'm positive that none of his drafts will be in longhand.

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