Effective parenting is often counterintuitive. My favorite time to teach early literacy is when a child is wailing or hopping mad.
Sounds crazy, no? The idea of grabbing a pen and paper when a child is screaming, kicking their heels, or simply crying because they miss mommy does seem odd at first. Try it. Writing down a child’s feelings is one of the most effective ways to quickly end the tears.
Writing messages works for the pre-literate child. You can start as young as age two.
What to do
Write a letter to the person your child is missing or mad at. If your child’s mad at you, go ahead and write the letter to yourself. You might have to start out: “Let’s say: Dear Mommy, I’m mad!” but after that, take dictation from your child. She will tell you how she feels. “I feel so mad I could throw a house at you!” Write down their exact words and read aloud what you’ve written together. Chances are, she will quickly memorize it. Let her choose where to put the finished letter (a “mailbox” or pinning it to her door, etc.). Give her the pen and let her “write” her name at the end. Don’t worry if it’s scribbles. It’s the action that counts.
Writing dictated notes during times of high emotion works wonders precisely because the child is feeling listened to and understood. The key is not to give in, (not to give her that extra cookie) but to help her express her intense feelings. Once the feelings are out, tears typically dry up.
Writing it down on paper also gives the child something tangible to look out. She may not be able to read yet, but she can see it. She knows exactly what it says. She can hold and touch it. What’s more, your child just gained an incredible interest in reading/ writing. She recognizes how powerful the written word can be: it can capture her deepest feelings. That’s meaningful literacy. Going straight to the child’s heart.
Even a screaming, kicking child will get interested in what you’re doing. Speak aloud and do your best to capture her feelings. That gets the child’s attention. She will stop screaming, come over and help you get the right words. After that, the tantrum’s usually over.
Tips for starting out
- Let’s write that down!
- Let’s write how you feel in a letter.
- What should we say? How about: “Dear Dad, Caleb is mad. He’s so mad he feels like kicking…”
- You want your mom right now. Let’s tell her how you feel.
- Your letter won’t bring your mom here, but it will tell her how you’re feeling.
- Here’s a picture of your face crying. See the tears?
Using dictated letters is just one of the 29 “renegade rules” in the book It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids. Learn more at heathershumaker.com or watch this short video on writing dictated letters.
Have you ever tried writing a note with a young child? How did it go? What other tools do you use to help kids express their emotions?