Not too long ago, I found myself sending text messages instead of handwritten thank you notes — something I vowed never to do. I was so busy, and I rationalized it by thinking that people don’t really care how they’re thanked, they just want to be thanked. But deep down, I cringed a little, feeling I’d done something wrong.
I started writing thank you notes — at my mother’s insistence — in elementary school for every present I got, and it became second nature to me. Growing up in the ’80s, I wrote letters to my grandmother, and I could count on her to send me one right back. I left for college in 1995 armed with the addresses of all my friends from home.
I’ve long stopped writing letters, but I miss the slow, personal, and often soul-baring way they enabled me to communicate in a way that e-mails, texts, and social media posts rarely do.
The average home receives just one personal letter every 10 weeks, according to the 2015 Household Diary Study by the US Postal Service — and that’s expected to decline with each passing year. Most kids today have little experience with letter writing -— and the pleasure of getting a letter in the mail.
I was thrilled when my son Max’s first-grade class embarked on a letter-writing project this year to cultivate their writing skills. From the start, Max took pride in writing to his great-grandmother in Florida; our former nanny who’d moved to Germany; my parents, who live a few miles away. Every day he’d rush home to check the mailbox to see if anyone had written him back, and quite often there was a letter with his name on it.
From an educational perspective, letter writing is a great way to teach the mechanics of writing, says Nicole Bell, an elementary school teacher in Falmouth.
“It also really helps kids get motivated to write — it shows them there are fun parts of writing, it’s not just about school work.” Students in Bell’s class are encouraged to ask questions in their letters to compel recipients to write back.
Letters can also provide a forum for children to express their emotions and feelings in a safe way, says Lovern Moseley, a child and adolescent psychologist at Boston Medical Center, who also points out that letter writing can help foster the concept of delayed gratification.
In contrast to the fast-paced social-media world, letter writing causes students to pause, helping them become aware of the artistry of communication over the speed and utility of electronic communication, says David Timony, an education psychologist and chair of education at Delaware Valley University.
“With letter writing, the importance of planning and editing reclaim their roles in the communicative process. The impulse to share becomes thoughtful when letter writing is the activity. The assumption of an interested reader — rather than scrolling passerby — makes for well-planned words, as does the assumption of a meaningful response.”
Almost twice as many children and teenagers who write letters at least once a month write above the expected level for their age compared with those who don’t write letters, according to a 2015 survey by the UK-based National Literacy Trust.
There’s additional research that indicates kids who write letters from a young age are likely to do so as they get older. That turned out to be true for Brookline resident Nicole Beck, 27, who started writing letters to a pen pal in an elementary school classroom project.
“My pen pal and I were lined up alphabetically,” says Beck, who lived in Florida then while her pen pal was in Georgia. Over 20 years later, Beck and her pen pal, though they’ve never met in person, still write to one another.
“There is such poetry in letter writing,” says Beck. You have to be a lot more thoughtful than you do with a digital conversation.”
Beck sends handwritten notes to many people in her life, though few of them share her passion for the craft. “I’ll often send friends cards and letters but they’ll respond back via e-mail, it’s like the effort of actually writing is too much for them,” she says.
I have boxes of saved letters in our basement. Recently, I went through the missives from my grandmother. She filled me in on the bits and pieces of her days, asked questions about school, and reminded me that she was thinking about me. Nothing hugely important or sentimental, yet seeing her slight cursive writing and the quirky way she formed her “m’s” filled me with emotion: she passed away 15 years ago, yet holding her letters felt almost as if I were holding a piece of her.
Another box contains correspondence from my college years. I laughed out loud as I read some of the letters. Re-reading them inspired me to reach out to some of my old friends and we shared moments reminiscing about our younger selves. People seldom save e-mails for long periods of time and they certainly don’t hang on to texts. I’m grateful to have those letters as proof of my past and the people who have been important to me.
While it’s unlikely that Max will have a voluminous library of letters to look back on when he is older, I’ve safely tucked those that he has received this year in a box on the top shelf of his closet. It’s a big box, so there’s room for plenty more.