Aspiring authors

Encouraging your child to write

Encouraging your child to write

While advertisements for soccer, karate, basketball, tap, jazz and gymnastics dot the bulletin boards at our local youth center in West Point, finding an extracurricular boost for a budding Steven King is not so easy. As the mother of an eight-year-old son who would rather discuss possible plot twists than earn his black belt, I needed to figure out a way to help my child grow his writing talents at home.

“The very best environment for kids to write is in the family,” says Bruce Van Patter, a children’s illustrator for over thirty years, who has given presentations on creative writing to over 200 elementary schools across the United States, including New York.

From journaling to creative writing to possible publication, parents can serve as a guide to a child interested in exploring personal forms of writing.  “In a classroom, writing is just one of many, many tasks kids need to accomplish,” says Van Patter. “In the home, a story idea can be developed over time–picked up and put down over days, weeks, even months.”


Brainstorming for ideas

According to the most recent writing assessment for The Nation’s Report Card conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than half the students surveyed wrote a story about a personal or imagined experience only a few times a year in school, sometimes less.

“As a parent of four children, ranging from 24 to 10, I understand how hectic a family life can be,” says Van Patter. “Helping kids to generate ideas doesn’t have to be time-consuming, though. I’ve found countless ways to work it into the flow of our time together.”

In his work with kids, Van Patter found that children needed ideas just as much as they needed the skills to write a coherent story. He suggests that parents help their kids to brainstorm for writing ideas. Van Patter points out that parents can generate ideas with their children while driving them around, cleaning up after dinner, or sitting bedside at night.

“The purpose of this is to help kids get excited about their story ideas so that they can bring some momentum into a potential writing time. The more excited kids are about their ideas, the more they'll want to write.” The method for growing a child’s writing talent needs to be tailored for each child. My own son has a collection of notebooks where he jots down his thoughts or stories about things he has done. 

Although his journaling is sporadic, I find that it helps him to generate some great ideas for stories while documenting his own life. “What we are talking about here is not beautifully expressed journal writing but helping children express their feelings in whatever way they can. A simple drawing is the beginning of journal writing. Words come later.

By providing a blank book and calling it a journal, parents can begin a lifetime skill of communication,” says Donnalyn Yates, author of Kid’s Writing Journal: Writing Prompts to Stimulate the Imagination. “There should be no expectations on the part of the parents. Journal writing is expressing what you are feeling deep inside.” Yates also encourages parents to participate in their child’s journaling by writing in their own journal about the same topic as the child. Afterwards child and parent can share their thoughts. “I tell parents to forget about grammar and spelling in their child’s journal. The major point is to create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance and sharing,” according to Yates.

Journaling can be a great source of material for characters, settings and plot; making it a natural progression to larger writing projects.

READ MORE: Squiggles to Words: The Emergent Writer


Easy on structured routine

While parents encourage their children in their writing endeavors, the experience should not become one where the child feels pressured into performing a task. Instead, families should be growing an already existing interest within a structure that works for the budding writer. “Creative exercises like narrative writing should have intrinsic motivation. It should be fun for them,” says Van Patter.

Van Patter does not recommend a structured writing time for kids at the beginning. He adds that if parents do the preparation by talking up their child’s story with them, the child will make the time to write. Then after the child writes, parents should celebrate their child’s story.  Van Patter also suggests having the child read the story aloud to their parent. “That will give them a sense of performance; it will also help them to hear how their writing flows,” according to Van Patter. “Second, post the story someplace so that you can both come back to it and enjoy it again. “Once your child tastes the joy of writing and sharing their stories, they could be helped by having a regular time to write.”

Parents can better serve their child by educating themselves on how to encourage their child’s writing interests. There are books, web sites, classes, and, of course, your child’s teacher, who can serve as great resources for parents who are looking to help their children at home.


Publication can be a fun bonus

While publication is not a universal motivator, children who are writing stories might find interest in submitting their work to contests, local projects or national magazines. However, proceed into publication with caution. Even the most seasoned adult writer can have trouble coping with rejection. “We have heard from contributors who were encouraged to keep writing after their work was published in Stone Soup. However, we do not recommend putting too much emphasis on publication as a goal,” says Gerry Mandel, editor of Stone Soup Magazine, a publication for budding writers from age 8 to 13. “Our magazine receives over 200 submissions a week, over 10,000 submissions a year,” says Mandel. “Only a tiny percentage of the work can be published.”

Children can also look for publication opportunities through contests in their local newspapers or television stations. Local communities and organizations also sponsor writing events as fundraisers or to raise awareness on a topic. Whatever the outlet that your child chooses to pursue, be sure to emphasize the joys of writing rather than focusing on winning a prize or publication. While my son won a contest in our local paper, he didn’t place in another contest he entered two years earlier. When we learned the news, we talked about how much he enjoyed writing the story rather than focusing on the contest.

Let imaginations run

With the number of structured activities in modern day children’s lives, writing can be an exciting journey that children can take at their own pace and place.  “The best thing you can do for kids is to give them the freedom to explore their innate creativity. Your child has a wonderful imagination. With the right environment, that imagination can bubble over with ideas,” says Van Patter. “Don't force it. Encourage it. Celebrate it. Your child's writing can be a delightful journey of discovery for both of you.”


Janine Boldrin is a freelance writer. She lives in West Point, NY with her husband and three children.