Parents often ask me, How can I help my child with his or her writing if:
- I’m not a writer myself?
- The conversation always turns into a fight?
- I have no idea where to start?
Believe me, I get it. Conversations about writing can spark larger-than-life feelings.
For instance, I remember when I was in seventh grade, facing off with my mom over an essay.
Mom: You need three main points and your body paragraphs need to each explain one of them.
Me: I wrote it this way on purpose so that the thoughts flow into one another. I’m being creative.
Mom: Essays aren’t the place to be creative.
Me: (rolling my eyes) I like it the way it is. I worked hard on it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Mom: (after a deep, calming breath) I just don’t want you to be disappointed. When you get your grade …”
Me: I’ll get an A. You’ll see.
I didn’t get an A.
If we could have a second chance, both my mom and I would do things differently in that face-off. Over time, we did build a bridge between my creative energy and her logical (and practical) help. However, the fact remains. A conversation about writing can easily turn into a tug of war, or worse.
Every parent and child have different relationships when it comes to discussing creative work. Often the best choice is to enlist an outside voice, and that’s one of the reasons that Society of Young Inklings offers mentorships. However, even if your child does engage in a mentorship, you’ll still find yourself wanting to talk with your child about their writing sometimes. The ability to see their progress, to note their successes, and to offer outside perspective when they feel discouraged are all priceless gifts. So, how can give feedback that builds your relationship rather than tearing it down?
Three Steps To Developing Creative Trust With Your Child
1. Identify a Strength
When we look at writing, it can be easier to see problems rather than strengths. Imagine your child hands you a story peppered with spelling errors that make it difficult to decipher. However, when they read it aloud to you, you realize they’ve created a delightful character who encounters a surprising challenge and overcomes it. If you hadn’t asked your child to read the story aloud, you might have focused on the spelling and missed the story’s strengths.
Even when the problems aren’t so obvious, sometimes the fact that we’re confused in a particular spot is more clear than the fact that a child is starting to nuance dialogue, or using unexpected, vivid description. We’ve all learned about the compliment sandwich, and many of us will say something nice (of course we will) but overall, our feedback focuses on what can be fixed.
I’d like to invite you to intentionally make a different choice. What if, instead of telling your child what problems you see, you discuss with your child how they might amplify what is working?
Two things are happening here. First, you’re helping your child see what strengths stand out to you, as their reader. Perhaps it’s the dialogue or the characterization or the description. You’ve taken a non-confrontational stance, which diffuses any defensiveness that might otherwise have popped up. Second, you’re discussing ways to amplify the effect rather than telling your child what to change. What a relief! You don’t have to have all the answers! And rather than a fight, you end up having a collaborative brainstorming session that still helps your child grow.
2. Focus on the Desired Outcome
It’s easy to feel pressure to help your child make positive progress the first time they share writing with you. You’re taking a risk, after all, by daring to share your honest feedback. Most people find that giving feedback feels riskier than receiving it.
If you find your heart rate increasing as you read over your child’s work, take a moment to decide on your desired outcome. What would be the next step for you and your child, in regards to discussing writing? For instance, if you’ve never discussed writing before, the next step might be building enough trust so you end up having a second and third discussion. If you have an established line of communication, the next step might be helping your child work toward finishing a piece, spend time revising an element of the story in order to see how that effort pays off, or stretch toward a subject or structure that is outside their comfort zone.
Overall, the most important thing is to choose your desired outcome and focus your feedback on that goal. You’ll be helping your creative child, whose energy is likely to fracture and multiply ideas and options. Choosing one focus, and letting everything else wait for another conversation, will help your child make more progress in the long run.
3. Put Yourself on the Line
I know I said that giving feedback can feel riskier than receiving it, and it can. That said, your willingness to put your own experience out there, honestly, will help your child feel more comfortable sharing. You know your child best. It may be that launching into a story about you in the middle of a creative conversation will be counter-productive. For some kids, expressing what you notice through the lens of your own stories is the best way to go.
If an in-the-moment story is likely to backfire, you might consider starting to talk about your own thinking and growth at other times. Maybe you’re learning to garden, or play the guitar, or do yoga. A quick remark about how you finally figured something out, with a little explanation of how you tried a few times before and it didn’t work at first, can go a long way. You don’t have to relate it to your child’s creative work at all. The point is to show up and to be willing to be a learner. When you show that things don’t always work for you, or you share your thinking aloud so your child can see how you found your way from a goal to an outcome, you are modeling how to learn. Without saying it, you’re showing your child that it’s okay to fail no matter how old you are, and that struggle and the consequent learning, are worth the effort.
Before we wrap up, I want to say one more highly important thing: Thank you. Thank you for seeking ways to support your creative writer. Especially if this isn’t your area of strength, especially if you’ve had difficult experiences talking about writing with your child in the past, thank you. You’re giving your child an incredible gift.
We want to support your efforts, which is why we’ve made a cheat sheet: What Makes a Good Story? I’ve asked you to look for strengths, and if you’re not a writer, I realize picking one out can be difficult. So, we wanted to share with you the key elements that make for a good story, with a bit of explanation of how to identify each. You can download that cheat sheet below.
If you have any questions or would like the support of one of our Inklings mentors, never hesitate to reach out. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.