The etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute have been dishing out advice for years. Now they have some for parents: Don't let your child's carefree summer days become totally free of writing.
At the top of their list for practicing the fine art of prose: letter writing. It not only helps children learn how to communicate with others, they say, but it's also a matter of good manners.
"We definitely see parents needing to be involved in their kids' learning," says Cindy Post Senning, a director of the organization named for the original lady of decorum.
The institute became interested in encouraging children to write letters when officials there saw a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It reported that the average fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grader can write only at a basic level.
Also, most fourth-grade students spend less than three hours a week writing, which is approximately 15 percent of the time they spend watching television, according to one study.
But the need for good writing skills continues to increase. In 2005, for instance, students taking the SAT test (whose scores are carefully weighed by many college admissions offices) will have to write an essay.
To Post Senning, being able to communicate well is a major part of daily life. "We're committed to helping kids develop their social skills, and writing is a critical skill," she says.
As an aid to increasing children's social skills and therefore their self-confidence, the Post Institute offers tips and activities at www.emilypost.com.
Parents and caregivers can help young people become interested in writing, the group says, by make writing relevant to youngsters' typical activities. For example, a child who just finished the latest Harry Potter saga could pen a quick note to Grandma, telling all about it. Family trips can easily incorporate journal writing, and pool parties can involve written invitations and thank-you notes.
To encourage young campers to write home and to friends, the institute suggests sending children off to camp with custom-made correspondence kits, including homemade stationary and fun pens.
Writing can also improve and enhance the parent-child relationship, says Post Senning. She even suggests that it can be a way for parents to show kids they're genuinely interested in them.
John Briggs, associate professor of English and director of basic writing at the University of California, Riverside, offers these tips for moms and dads:
1. Write a letter to your child and ask for a written reply. Place the letter in an envelope and put it somewhere the child will discover it. Do not discuss the letter unless your child wishes to talk about it, but indicate your expectation that the child's answer will be in writing, in an envelope set out for you. Make a point of carrying on this correspondence in writing, without speech. See how long you can continue the exchange. (E-mail might work, too, but the advantage of a letter is its simplicity and formality. It also requires the use of language and grammar skills in a way that e-mail doesn't.)
2. Encourage very young children to dictate letters and stories to adults. Write down what they say and "publish" it with interesting typefaces on the computer. Start a family newspaper, which can be distributed to grandparents.
3. Encourage children to keep a daily reading journal, into which interesting passages from books are copied, along with ideas and observations by the child.
Above all, say the experts, make writing fun. It shouldn't be a painful chore.