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What's Write for the Family

By Gregory Keer
Photographs capture moments. Every family has pictures of births, first days of school, and graduations. Video records excerpts of life. A growing number of parents have footage of babies walking, birthday parties, and vacation events.

But written words express a depth of thought that no electronic media can surpass. Writing requires us to choose our words carefully, to provide a unique perspective, and to scribble the contents of our imaginations and our memories.

QuoteWith the holiday season upon us, most parents will have ample opportunity to be with their children and, in many cases, with extended family. Grandparents will be telling stories of growing up in the old country or walking 20 miles through the snow to school. Cousins from across the country will talk about the way things are where they live. And parents will recount for their children what they remember about holiday traditions they had while growing up.

At holiday gatherings, taking photographs and video is certainly fun for future viewings, but writing down family stories and histories is a unique way for families to produce lasting expressions of who they are, were, and will be. For parents, this may mean preparing children with little memo pads to act as reporters, jotting down details. Or it could involve kids sitting down with a laptop to interview their grandparents or aunts/uncles. Or it could turn into a post-holiday dinner session at the kitchen table to write the story together.

Getting the Kids Motivated

Given that writing is rarely considered a family leisure activity, parents will need to motivate their kids into doing something so potentially rich. For many kids, writing is synonymous with schoolwork. However, in the modern age of electronic communication, writing is more important than ever as e-mail, instant messaging and blogging can attest. So, the first step in moving the kids to write is to tell them (especially those over nine years of age) that they’re already writing about their lives on the computer.

Another way to convince children to become family scribes is the opportunity to publish a “family book.” Parents can assign their children to write a brief biography of each member of the family, including themselves and even the dog, to be bound in a decorated notebook that can be added to at each holiday.

For the kindergartners to second graders just learning to write words and sentences, parents should plan to help, but should also see this as a chance for the children to show off their skills. And for pre-writers, parents can simply ask questions such as, “What do you like best about our family,” and write it down for them. These kids can then illustrate the page if they’d like.

Resources for Writing

The concept of writing as a family is growing in interest as word experts bring the power of written communication out of the classroom and into the home. In her inspiring new book, Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing, Josephine Nobisso explains how writers of any age can create vivid images and activity in their words. The book uses warm and whimsical paintings from Eva Montanari to create a clever lion character who leads children on a fantastical lesson in written storytelling. Words twist and turn, look big and small, long and wide in ways that keep young readers interested in the language art they are being taught.

The key to Nobisso’s text is an energetic explanation of how people need to use their imaginations to choose words carefully. More specifically, the book details how to use the five senses – plus intuition – to create a tale that shows a reader what’s inside a writer’s mind. Following the playful explanations of the senses and grammar Nobisso takes the children though a step-by-step process of writing a story.

To strengthen writing skills and brighten imaginations, other books on the market take unique approaches to writing as well. Gloria Rothstein’s Writing Activities Based on Favorite Picture Books, guides parents and young children through written exercises based on book favorites such as Officer Buckle and Gloria and Dear Mr. Blueberry. With inspiration from familiar reading material, children can play author without thinking twice about the concept of “homework.”

Once Upon A Time: Creative Writing Fun For Kids, by Annie Buckley, Kathleen Coyle, and Cathy Law, gets even more interactive in its journey though the creative writing process. Fifty story-idea cards (called “sparklers”) set the wheels in motion for children to construct tales.

All this creative warming up can be good to lead into writing about real family members and events. Author Julie Wollman-Bonilla’s hard-to-find but enlightening work, Family Message Journals: Teaching Writing Through Family Involvement (published by the National Council of Teachers, of all sources), explores the idea of having children write messages to parents in a journal. Charley Kempthorne’s more grown-up book, For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History, offers suggestions for writing everything from biographies to family newsletters opens up the concept of family writing to multiple forms.

And then, there is the Dr. Seuss classic My Book About Me, which rattles off all kinds of questions (“My teeth. I counted them. I have ___ up top. I have ___ downstairs.”) for a child to write their autobiographies. In and of itself, it serves as an excellent foundation for creating a general family history book.

A Garden of Writing Forms

Whether you start with Dr. Suess or from scratch, the trick is to try various options until something clicks. You can vary things from there, but make sure to put it all together in some kind of notebook or expandable folder or special box.

Of the various types of writing to try and include in your family history, here are a few:

  1. Diaries – Have your children keep journals. Each child can either choose one from a stationery store or create her/his own. After a year or so, put the journals in a family history box. Be sure to try writing your own journal about you and your family, too.
  2. E-mails – Get your kids to send you and other family members emails about their days or special occasions. Print them out and put them in a notebook. Set a writing example by writing your own journal entries about your children and email them to your spouse as well as print them for the book.
  3. Interviews – Working together, develop a questionnaire that your kids can use to interview grandparents and others about where they come from and other highlights in their lives. This activity works really well with 9 to 18-year-olds.
  4. Creative Stories – Let your children write tales just for fun. Have them do this once a year or more and keep the results in the family history box so you can look back and see their skills and interests from year to year. One way to facilitate the stories is for you to start the story, have your child continue, then trade off coming up with plot points. The stories are best when you include your child and perhaps their friends as characters as well as familiar locations.
  5. Lists – Ask your kids to come up with simple lists, such as “My Favorite Songs, “My Best Friends,” and “Foods I Like.” You can start this with two-year-olds just by asking them the questions and filling in the answers yourself.
  6. Old-fashioned Letters – Young children love getting mail. Suggest that they write letters to you, and will write letters to them. Mail the letters and let the kids open yours “all by themselves.” Include the letters in the family history box. Write a letter for each child that explains your hopes and dreams for them, then have them open it up when they are older, maybe even grown up with children of their own.
  7. Greeting Cards – Encourage your children to create their own cards or at least add sentiments to store-bought ones. Save their work in the box.
  8. Fill Out a Detailed Family Tree – Do more than the usual names on branches. Leave space for the kids to fill in short descriptions of each family member.
  9. Vacation Journals – For each vacation, have the kids write down notes or stories of the trip in their own journals. Collect them when they’re filled and place them in the box.
  10. Random Writing in Chronological Order – Collect one piece of writing for each child for each year of their lives. It can start with the first sentence all the way up to college research papers.

These ideas are just the beginning of what you can imagine using for your family history writing. The point is to inspire your children to write and to use what they write to record their feelings and experiences in a deep and rich way.

About the Author
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher, and father of two boys. He can be reached at


Show, Don't Tell! Show, Don't Tell! Writing Activities Based on Favorite Picture Books Writing Activities Based on Favorite Picture Books Once Upon a Time: Creative Writing Fun for Kids Once Upon a Time: Creative Writing Fun for Kids My Book About Me

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