Helping Your Children Master the Art of Communication
by F.R. Duplantier
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” So observed Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet and priest, more than 100 years ago. Of all God’s grand creations, man is one of the grandest — and Hopkins one of the grandest of men. If you have not read Hopkins’ poetry, you’ve missed some of God’s grandeur. But not all of it. Because God’s grandeur is all around us. To experience it, you need only do what the crossing guards used to advise: Stop, Look & Listen. This is the first step, also, in the mastery of any art or craft. Stop, Look & Listen. Then Imitate. (Identify the masters and copy them.) There are, of course, certain tricks that make the effort easier. Here are ten suggestions for helping your children master the art of communication:
1. Set a good example. Stressing the importance of reading and writing rings false if your children never see you doing either. If the only book in your home is a telephone directory, the true value that you place on reading will be clear. Your estimation of the value of writing will be revealed by the presence, or absence, in your home of pens, pencils, paper, typewriters, computers, etc. If you watch television constantly, your children are not likely to become avid readers. If you communicate with the outside world solely on the telephone, your children may grow up to be good talkers, but they’re not likely to be good writers.
2. Open your eyes and ears. You don’t have to go to the library to find good writing worthy of imitation. It’s all around you — on billboards, in newspapers, in the lyrics of popular songs and commercial jingles. Granted, most of the writing done by journalists and admen is wretched, but some of it is quite good. Learn to tell the difference, and help your children distinguish between the good and the bad. Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” for instance, tells the story of a reckless youth who would not heed his mother’s warnings and lived to regret it. It’s just a popular country tune, but it displays all the elements of fine literature: strong plot, vivid description, character development, and a moral lesson. The theme for the television show All in the Family is a brilliant evocation not only of the emotion of nostalgia, but of the thought process associated with it. The theme for Green Acres offers a good example of the writing technique of comparison and contrast, with its juxtaposition of the benefits of country and city life, not to mention the attitudes of men and women.
3. Cultivate a love for language. Play word games with your children. Puns and palindromes, jokes and riddles, anagrams and acrostics, scrabble, hangman, and crosswords — these are all fun activities that can dramatically improve the verbal ability of practitioners. What, for example, is the phone number for the Garden of Eden? (Adam 8-1-2.) What is peculiar about the phrase “Madam, I’m Adam”? (Bob, Eve, and Otto can tell you the answer.) What are the five other four-letter words that can be made by rearranging the letters in the word STOP? What’s the three-letter synonym for a salamander? Can you deduce Shakespeare’s true identity from the numerous clues provided in Sonnet #76?
4. Cultivate the habit of thinking. You cannot teach your children to write without teaching them to think. Begin with basic logic. Teach your children to recognize common fallacies and avoid using them unintentionally (an appeal to pity may be their best bet against a lynch mob, even if they are innocent). Television commercials are a great resource for explaining intellectual errors: If 90 percent of a certain European sedan are “still on the road” in America, but the cars have only been available domestically for fewer than five years, the implication of durability is unwarranted. If the best teas in the world have a cloudy appearance when brewed, the fact that one popular brand “doesn’t get cloudy” should be construed as a negative, not a positive, quality. If tuna is either pink or white when it’s canned, and the same color when it’s opened again, the claim that one brand of white tuna “doesn’t turn pink in the can” is disingenuous.
5. Take charge. You are the editor and your children are the writers. They work for you, not vice versa. A good editor, like any good boss, knows how to use reward and punishment, the carrot and the stick. He knows each writer’s strengths and weaknesses, how to capitalize on the former and compensate for the latter. He knows how to motivate a writer, with praise (and payment), with firm deadlines and definite consequences for failing to meet them. He knows what topics will capture the writer’s interest. He knows what he expects from the writer and gives him explicit instructions, so there’s no misunderstanding. Don’t ask your children to write something about something sometime; tell them what to write about, what style to write in, how many words to use, and when to be finished.
6. Pretend. If your children suffer from “writer’s block,” let them pretend to be someone else. Putting a mask on lowers inhibitions dramatically, as anyone who has attended Mardi Gras in costume knows, and perhaps regrets. Let your children dress as a superhero, a cowboy, or a ballerina and write a first-person narrative about the adventures of their new personas. An alias is a verbal mask; encourage your children to adopt pseudonyms, if that’s what it takes to get them started. Having an audience in mind can facilitate the writing process, so have them imagine that they’re writing to a particular person or group — a favorite relative or friend, their fellow knights of the round table, etc.
7. Make lists. Ask your children to do an outline before writing and they’ll tell you that they don’t know how to do an outline. So, tell them to make lists instead. Lists are readily converted into outlines. A grocery list becomes the outline for a story about a shopping trip. A list of chores becomes an outline for “A Day in the Life of (Your Child).” The starting lineup of a favorite athletic team, the five senses, the colors of the rainbow — are ready-made lists waiting to be converted into outlines and essays. Any child can write a 15-page paper on American presidents, once he realizes that all he needs are introductory and closing paragraphs, and 43 paragraphs in the middle, one for each of the men who have held the office.
8. Choose wisely. Encourage your children to write about what they know and like. Don’t ask them to choose topics; choose for them (remember, you’re the editor). Make an assignment. If you’re an attentive parent, you know what their interests are. You know that kids don’t like the same things as adults, that boys don’t like the same things as girls, and that one kid doesn’t like the same things as another. If you want young teenagers to write a descriptive piece, have them describe what they think would be the perfect mate. If you want them to demonstrate comparison and contrast, have them juxtapose this perfect mate to the polar opposite. Maybe such an exercise would not appeal to your teenager; then choose a different topic.
9. Put first things first. Your children can learn to write well by copying good writing, but don’t start with Shakespeare. Master the primitive forms before tackling the more sophisticated. For poetry, start with Mother Goose rhymes and have your children make up their own words for “Little Boy Blue” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Move on to popular songs, television themes, and commercial jingles, and have your children rewrite Clarence Carter’s “Patches,” the ballad of The Beverly Hillbillies, and the Oscar Mayer hotdog song. Don’t move on to sonnets and epic poetry until they’re ready. For prose, start with fairy tales and fables. Have your children “retell” the ones they know by heart, like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Then give them the basic plot and characters of tales they haven’t heard and see how well they can flesh them out. Move on to classic short stories like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Have your children recreate these stories before (with a parent’s outline) and after they’ve read them.
10. Criticize constructively. How can you correct your children’s writing without stifling their creativity or making them dread the whole endeavor? First, find something to praise. Whatever your children’s level of ability, there will always be some element of their writing that you can point to with pride. Keep looking until you find it; point to it. Then, instead of criticizing all the rest, ask questions. Questions are much less demoralizing than accusations; they also force your children to think, which is the ultimate goal of all legitimate education. If your children have retold the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but left out the woodchopper, ask them why? Was the woodchopper on strike? Had he accepted a bribe from the wolf? You know what Little Red Riding Hood was wearing, obviously, but did your children tell you what was in that basket? Was it Grandma’s favorite pastries, or a refill of her prescription from the pharmacy? What kind of woods did Red walk through — the easily negotiated piny kind, or the thick overgrown brushy kind that you have to hack through with a machete? Ask the right questions and you’ll get the right answers. When you’ve elicited all the necessary responses from your children, have them write their stories over again, plugging in all that extra information that they thought of themselves.