If you ask someone what the earliest thing they remember writing was, they’ll probably respond with a school project they had to research and present.
Change the question slightly by asking what the first thing they remember writing for pleasure was and some people might think about it for a while and tell you it was a childhood letter to Santa Claus.
So much of writing when we’re young is assigned work. At school it’s a book report, a research project on a famous historical figure or something similarly intimidating. At home it’s the thank you letters your mom insists you write to all your relatives that have to be mailed no more than a week after the party, an apology to someone you wronged or other “ugh” work.
There are few opportunities for kids to indulge in the sheer joy of writing. Everything has a purpose and a due date, both of which are the killers of any level of enthusiasm in the younger set.
Perceptions change when they are able to write about something they love. Think of the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralph’s class is told they must write a theme. Ralph, along with everyone else, groans at the drudgery that’s suddenly been thrust into their lives. His attitude changes when the teacher tells them the topic and he sees the opportunity to truly express himself. He can’t wait to take on the task and when he gets home the words “flowed from his penny pencil” as never before.
Writing is often held up as among the most important skills someone can develop in life. While not everyone will be a journalist or author, everyone will have to communicate via the written word in some manner. That’s even true in the age of Snaps and emojis. Situations will still arise where being able to arrange thoughts in writing and clearly communicate a message or idea will be essential to their professional or personal lives. If nothing else, becoming an effective writer helps make you an effective reader, which is certainly a good trait to have.
Not every child is a natural writer. Some will struggle, regardless of their interest level in the topic at hand. Some, though, will take to it easily and become masters.
One has to wonder, though, if encouraging kids to do more joy-based writing at an early age could unlock the potential of a bigger chunk of the population. “Because you have to” is a great way to create nothing but dislike and distaste in the minds of any kid and may discourage someone who might otherwise be a natural talent from ever feeling any love toward writing in their lives.
We need fewer “you must do this” and more “and now you’re able to do this” moments early in life. I increasingly believe it can make a world of difference.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.