Dispatches: A New Feature

Tomorrow I’ll be introducing “Dispatches,” a new feature here at letterstomykids.org. “Dispatches” will deliver occasional updates on the letters-to-my-kids concept now and throughout history. By now I’ve figured out that I’m hardly the first parent to write letters to his kids, nor will I be the last. Mothers and fathers have so communicated with future generations for centuries, and with any luck will keep at it for many millenia more.

The premise of “Dispatches” is to convey a sense of the letters-to-my-kids landscape out there and its status, above and beyond my humble little blog. I’ll play reporter, issuing bulletins from the front lines about other letters from other parents to other kids. I’ll also play historian, harking back to parent-to-child letter-writing in years past. This new feature will be primarily journalistic, maybe even a jot scholarly.

Throughout, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for patterns that emerge – trends, organizing principles, unifying theories, even a coda of sorts. But I’ll keep it simple. Above all, I’ll try to offer understanding and insight – about why some parents write such letters in the first place, along with any hints gleaned about why the rest of us might follow suit.

I’ve done some homework over the last six months, scanning the web for samples of parent-kid letters, and from hundreds have selected but two dozen or so to highlight in coming months. It’s good stuff. So far, my research has yielded some telling though preliminary findings about our motives for writing such letters, clues about what prompts this archival impulse, this epistolary urge, in the first place.

The letters I’ll post touch on everything imaginable, from politics and religion to everyday domestic life and society in general. For now, though, it seems to me, the letters fit largely into the following six categories.

Valentines: So giddy are we with the thrill of parenthood, so do we marvel at the miracle of a creature we’ve created, that we compose love letter rhapsodies.

Advisory: We’ve packaged all our hard-won wisdom about what’s right and what’s wrong for our kids in a handy one-stop-shop format.

Humor: We’ve discovered that parenthood is too serious a matter to treat too seriously and so have proceeded with mirth aforethought.

Advocacy: We’ve stepped forward to testify about an issue close to our hearts as a public service for the betterment of future generations.

Confessions: We all have heavy emotional stuff bottled up inside us, family secrets and grievances and whatnot, that are just screaming to get out.

Mortality: We’ve realized we’re going to die someday – we’ve glimpsed shadows of twilight inching toward our front door – and will now leave behind the prized legacy of our memories.

In the year ahead, then, thanks to this new feature, you’ll be linked to parents – moms outnumber dads about six to one – with all manner of tale to tell. You’ll hear from parents who lavish extravagant praise on unsuspecting offspring, offer hard-won lessons learned, laugh about the absurdity of it all, go to bat for birth control and the environment, admit to everything from unwanted pregnancies to kidnappings, and, yes, even stare death right in the face.

But enough preview. Tomorrow let “Dispatches” begin our new adventure.

Dispatches: The Love Letter Syndrome

Let’s face it: no matter what we do, we’re just never going to get enough of that kid. That kid is one of a kind. That kid walks on water. Now we’re going to sing our praises to the heavens, only to wish our hymns could somehow travel higher.

Trenea Smart of California recently realized the time had come for her to write letters to her three children – love letters, in fact. The divorced mother decided once and for all to capture in words the joy she feels that her kids exist in the first place. Her oldest daughter, herself now a mother of two, Trena compliments on her bravery and loyalty. Her middle daughter, now also a mom, she recalls typically waking up happy. “I would always hear you gently laughing or cooing in your crib.” Trena remember, too, how she spent her first night in the hospital with her son. “I heard you crying in the nursery and asked the nurse to bring you to me,” she says. We fell asleep together.” http://www.divinecaroline.com/22059/129819-love-letters-adult-children

Jamee Sanders of Las Vegas wrote a letter to her son, Preston, now eight months old. She suspects his silliness comes from his Dad. “You remind me to take time out to smile and laugh,” she says. She likes how he “flashes her a big beautiful smile” after taking a nap – “it is moments like these that I dreamed of before I conceived you.” She chronicles tender little moments – how he stares at her face as if seeing it for the first time, plays peek-a-boo and pattycake, and likes getting raspberries on his belly. “Even on my worst day, you can make me smile.” http://secretsofamodernmama.blogspot.com/2012/02/letters-to-my-son.html

Dispatches: How We Give Advice To Our Kids

We parents have lived long enough by now, and gone through enough ups and downs, not to mention more than a few movements sideways, to have accumulated the odd nugget of advice. Now, in the spirit of redistributing the wealth, we’ve decided it’s time to share.

Georgie Bright Kunkel, a 90-year-old former school teacher in Seattle, wrote a letter to her adult children about her shifting role as a mother. “No longer is my hand on the helm,” so to speak,” she writes. “It is time for you to set your own course.” Still, she lays out some common sense pointers. Example: “If we sometimes disagree, we can do so with dignity.” She also makes her case for her children staying connected to her. “By staying close as a family,” she ventures, “we can go beyond ourselves and become something we might not otherwise have been.” http://www.westseattleherald.com/2012/03/05/opinion/letter-adult-children

Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State in South Africa has written about life lessons in letters to his two children on Twitter. Inspired by poet Maya Angelou’s “Letter To My Daughter,” he compiled his twittering in a book, “Letters To My Children: Tweets To Make You Think.” “Never under any circumstances become a politician,” he urges. “Choose public service instead.” http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Children-Tweets-Think-ebook/dp/B007KYFYAA

Marian Wright Edelman wrote letters to her three adult sons that she turned into a book called “The Measure Of Our Success: A Letter To My Children And Yours.” A long-time social activist, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. Edelman counsels, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences that we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences that we often cannot foresee.” http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060975463

Dispatches: Why Parenthood May Be A Laughing Matter

Just because parenthood is a serious business is no reason to take it too seriously – especially if, as two aspiring parents recently found out, you have yet to actually have any kids.

Ross Hyzer, a stand-up comedian recently married, wrote a letter to his unborn child, to be read on his or her 25th birthday. Marriage, he says, moved him to devote more time to wondering what the future might bring. Ross opens with some jokes, but soon turns semi-serious, and – “life being as fragile and fickle as it is” – puts forward seven pointers, including “Avoid the Internet” and “Be Nice To Goths.” In conclusion, he apologizes. “I’m sorry the world is so weird. Your mother and I tried to make things better, with our flash mobs and yoga parties and retweets, but nothing seemed to work.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ross-hyzer/parenting-advice_b_1465811.html

A woman who chose to remain anonymous wrote a letter warning her future children about her ultra-competitive mother. Specifically, she cautions her kids against ever getting competitive with her, least of all in anything physical. “Trust me on this one, kids,” she writes, “she is feisty and never, ever backs down.” She then gives some examples of recent encounters with her mother that, thanks to her “firecracker personality,” turned into confrontations. One incident involved ice cubes as an improbable instrument of revenge. So, the mother-to-be says, “no racing, arm wrestling, no anything under any circumstances, even if she’s in a wheelchair.” http://huntingforbliss.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/letters-to-my-hypothetical-children-part-2/

Dispatches: U.S. Presidents Write Letters To Their Kids, Too

George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did it. So did Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and William H. Taft. More recently, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have done it, too. And, yes, Barack Obama has done it as well.

Write letters to their daughters, that is.

It’s the truth. These U.S. presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, took time out from presiding over momentous affairs of state while in the White House, to perform a parental act no less momentous in its own right. They shared advice with their daughters on topics from education and politics to friendship, marriage, parenting, home life and even the art of letter-writing itself.

With the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign now down to the wire, it’s timely to recognize such historic letters as revealing of presidential timber.

George Washington, for example, presumed to offer his step-daughters advice on love. Thomas Jefferson outlined a detailed daily schedule for his daughter Martha. “Keep my letters and read them at times,” it ended, “that you may always have present in your mind those things that will endear you to me.”

Rutherford B. Hayes warned his daughter “to curb her rebellious spirit.” Theodore Roosevelt, while preparing his assault on San Juan Hill, offered fatherly reassurance to his daughters Alice Lee Roosevelt and Ethel Carow Roosevelt. William Taft counseled his daughter Helen about her impending marriage.

Indeed, there’s a book called “First Daughters: Letters Between U.S. Presidents and Their Daughters.” The anthology, a collection of private correspondence between 21 of the 31 U.S. presidents who had daughters, was co-authored by Gerard W. Gawalt, curator of the papers of presidential families in the Library of Congress.

His co-author? His daughter, Ann G. Gawalt, who came up with the idea for the book in the first place.


Most recently, President Barack Obama wrote an open letter to his daughters, Sasha and Malia. Titled “What I Want For You – And Every Child In America,” it appeared in Parade magazine soon after his election in 2008. “It is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself,” the new president wrote, “that you will realize your true potential.”


Hey, if U.S. Presidents can take the time to do it, you can, too. Here’s my six-part series with advice about how:








Dispatches: Dear Son (Letters From Cicero, Lord Chesterfield and Robert E. Lee)

Back in the day, namely 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote an essay, three books long, that took the form of a letter to his son, also named Marcus. In the essay, titled De Officiis, the Roman statesman and philosopher detailed how to live and behave honorably, meaning mostly how to fulfill personal duties and observe civic obligations. Published after his death – only, as it happened, the second book produced by the printing press after the Gutenberg Bible – this classic of wisdom and common sense, though lofty in its aspirations, offers practical advice anyone can use. A case in point: We must live for others as well as for ourselves, Cicero wrote (“Our country, our friends, have a share in us”). http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=542&chapter=83344&layout=html&Itemid=27

Philip Stanhope, also known as the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield – or, if you prefer, simply Lord Chesterfield – took a similar path with his namesake, Philip. For more than 30 years, from 1737 to 1768, the aristocratic statesman, literally a man of letters, wrote 400-plus letters to his son, who was born, as they say, illegitimately. Those letters sought to overcome the presumed taint of illegitimacy, offering guidance in topics ranging from history and politics to literature and geography, as well as personal instruction about basic manners. Every word wound up compiled in a book called Letters To His Son On the Art of Becoming A Man of the World and a Gentleman. “A man’s own good-breeding is the best security against other people’s ill manners,” Lord Chesterfield wrote. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chesterfield/letters/

In 1861, Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in the Civil War, wrote a letter to his son, George Washington Custis Lee, himself a Major General (for the record, he also wrote heartfelt letters to his daughter, Annie). In plain language, the military leader gives his son personal, practical advice about basic tenets to follow in life. Say what you mean to do and then do it. If you have an issue with someone, tell him to his face. If a friend asks for a reasonable favor, grant it. http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/to%20his%20son.htm

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

Dispatches: Dear Son (Letters From George Patton and Ferdinando Sacco)

In England in 1944, as General George S. Patton prepared his troops for battle, he wrote a letter to his son George, then enrolled at West Point. Though the letter is father to son, it comes across more as a communiqué from officer to soldier, and as a mission statement about personal conduct in war. In the letter, Patton, who as commander of the Third Army captured more prisoners and liberated more territory in World War II than any other army in history, in effect lectures the 21-year-old cadet (at the end he acknowledges having given a “sermon”). For example, he addresses the issue of courage versus cowardice. Of those who act timidly in combat, Patton writes, “You will never do that because of your blood lines on both sides.” The peptalk also urges the son to take risks and be self-confident (“You can have no doubts about your abilities as a soldier”). Most memorably, he advises him to be true to himself, because unless people are themselves, they are “nobody.” http://artofmanliness.com/2011/08/21/manvotional-a-letter-from-general-george-s-patton-to-his-son/

In 1927, four days before he was to be executed by electrocution for murder during an armed robbery, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco wrote a letter to his son Dante. “Whatever should happen tomorrow, nobody knows,” the doomed anarchist wrote from his jailhouse cell in Charlestown State Prison in Boston. “But if they kill us,” he wrote, he encouraged his son to remember always to smile with gratitude at the friends and “fallen persecuted comrades” who love him. He urged Dante to be strong so as to comfort his mother, and to do as he once had – “take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wildflowers” and “rest under the shade of trees between the harmony of the vivid stream and the gentle tranquility of mother nature.” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/SaccoV/sacltrchar.html In 1950, folk singer Pete Singer wrote a song, “Sacco’s Letter To His Son.” http://www.peteseeger.net/sacco.htm

Dispatches: Because, Above All, We’re About Advocacy

We’re all about championing a cause, the more righteous the better. Now, because we’re advocates at heart, always looking to spread the good word, it’s only logical that we try to press our own kids into public service, too.

Kayt Sukel, a single mother in Texas, wrote an open letter to her baby son Chet about a controversial political action she recently took regarding birth control, despite cautionary advice from her mother that it would be “impolite” and her child miight someday read all about it. It involved a satirical piece she wrote about the potential use of aspirin as a contraceptive. Author of the recent book, “Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships,” Kayt explains here why she assumed her self-avowedly “impolite” stance against what she calls Republican attacks on birth control. “It’s important to me,’ she writes to her son, “that you grow up thinking of women not as fragile creatures that need to be patronized or protected (as sluts or angels, so to speak), but as equals who should have the right to their own power and freedoms.” http://www.xojane.com/issues/open-letter-my-son

Roxana Soto wrote a letter to her five-year-old daughter, who has asthma, about her own efforts to save the environment. “You’re still too young to understand the perilous state of our planet,” she writes.” Roxana admits being embarrassed about doing little to improve matters until recently. Now she has joined an organization to fight against Congressional action to weaken laws that safeguard clean air and water. “I know you have no idea what I’m talking about,” she writes, “but one day you will.” http://www.care2.com/greenliving/a-letter-to-my-children.html

Dispatches: The Mortality Effect

Time is on our side, at least for now. But here’s a fact that life – and especially parenthood – tends to drive home: someday we’re all going to die. We start to calculate how many days we’ve already used and estimate how many we may have left. We feel a sudden need to get our affairs in order, clear our consciences, and generally lay the groundwork for posterity. In short, if our own mortality is staring us in the face, we stare right back. And so we write a letter to our kids.

Velinda Peyton of Los Angeles decided the night before undergoing surgery that threatened to end her life almost 20 years ago that she should write letters to her children. “If I died in surgery, I would never have had the chance to say goodbye to my children.” Only recently has Velinda compiled the letters in a book, “This River Called Life: A Letter To My Children.” She reflects on her difficult childhood – how, for example, her father abducted her and her brother, only for her mother to hire a private detective who luckily found both. http://velindapeyton.com/my-book/

Tim Lott of the United Kingdom decided to write an open letter in The Guardian to his children. His reason: why wait until he’s on his deathbed to do so. “I should write a letter to my children before I go,” he writes. Besides, “I can never get my four daughters to listen to me on such matters without sniggering. So I’m going to write it down instead.”Here Tim takes the opportunity to dole out advice about how to make time count. “The present is all you’ve ever got . . . Living is tricky, everything is a guess . . . Be strong but be flexible.” He concludes with a lesson he learned regarding fatherhood about why sometimes “being wrong is fine.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/14/tim-lott-company-of-women-letter

P.S. – please see part 2 tomorrow.

Dispatches: The Mortality Effect (part 2)

Time is on our side, at least for now. But here’s a fact that life – and especially parenthood – tends to drive home: someday we’re all going to die. We start to calculate how many days we’ve already used and estimate how many we may have left. We feel a sudden need to get our affairs in order, clear our consciences, and generally lay the groundwork for posterity. In short, if our mortality is staring us in the face, we stare right back. And so we write a letter to our kids.

Ralphie May, a comedian, wrote goodbye letters to his two children after serious health issues threatened his life. Last November, he came down with walking pneumonia, only for a pulmonologist to discover, fortuitously, a clot in his leg. Within six hours of a procedure to locate and filter the clots, the doctors would know if the effort would succeed. “My life changed in that six hours,” Ralphie says. “I wrote a letter to my children.” http://www.sj-r.com/features/x1780478502/After-health-scare-comedian-Ralphie-May-comes-roaring-back

A mom who is also a Marine and a lawyer, yet declines to identify herself, started writing letters to her two young children, all to be made available only in the event of her death. “As much as I plan to be the great-grandma with the best stories and the huge garden when I’m really old,” she writes, “I have to face the fact that I could just as easily be taken in a car accident on the way home.” She posted a blog piece about her plans, asking her audience, “What would you say in this kind of letter?” Now, thanks to the advice and encouragement she received, she plans to keep a journal for each of her kids. http://cheapwineandcookies.blogspot.com/2012/03/if-i-die-letters-to-my-kids.html

Donna Pagano of Los Angeles started writing letters to her three children more than 10 years ago. She intends for her kids to read the letters only after she’s gone. Her motivation for writing the letters: proximity to death. A close friend of hers, the father of two young children, suffered a fatal heart attack. Eventually the certified financial planner co-authored a booklet, “The Family Love Letter,” about what parents should leave behind. It has a section strictly about family history and remembrances. “It’s not only what’s in your bank account,” Donna writes, “but also what’s in your heart.” http://www.familyloveletter.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8&Itemid=3

Dispatches: True Confessions

We’ve all got something to admit that’s never going to win any beauty contests. Yet dig down deep inside ourselves we do. That’s what the following three mothers have done.

A mother who chose to remain anonymous wrote a letter to her newborn son revealing a detail mothers rarely if ever reveal to a child – that she and his father had no intention of her getting pregnant with him. Yes, they wanted kids, but just later on. Still, she has no regrets. “Within moments of seeing you for the first time,” she writes, “I loved you more than I have ever loved anyone on this earth.” http://firsttimebabybumps.blogspot.com/2012/06/letters-to-my-son.html

Another mother who stays anonymous wrote a letter to her one-month-old son, Griffin, her third child, likewise acknowledging that the pregnancy was unplanned. Originally, she asked herself what she had gotten herself into. She even “threw a tantrum when that positive line showed up on that pregnancy stick.” Now she feels drastically otherwise – elated, in fact. “I’ve spent hours holding, kissing and admiring every pore,” she writes. She calls herself “utterly honored and amazed” to have received this “perfect gift.” http://myuncensoredbrain.wordpress.com/tag/griffin/

Amanda of Nashville, Tennessee wrote a letter to her three children to express her wish for God to restore in her “the full joy of being a mother.” As much as she adores her kids and feels honored to be a mother, she admits to being selfish and considers herself “broken.” “I will still mess up and mess up big,” she writes.” She longs to love her children well “in this crash course in love called family.” Ultimately, she admits she needs Jesus. “My love for Jesus is bigger than my love for you,” she declares. Now she faces the dilemma of somehow reconciling what she sees as conflicting forces. http://life-edited.blogspot.com/2012/05/confession-praise-letter-to-my-children.html

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

Dispatches: True Confessions: Part 2

We’ve all got something to admit that’s never going to win any beauty contests. Yet dig down deep inside ourselves we do.

Jessica T, a mother of two and photographer in Utah, wrote a letter to her son Sam shortly after his fifth birthday to admit she’s having a tough time accepting the milestone. To her it means he’s no longer a baby and growing independent and now needs her less. “I struggled because as your mom I want you to NEED me for the rest of your life,” she tells him. Even so, she’s prepared to put her son first. She looks forward to his starting kindergarten, and to teaching him to tie his shoelaces and to ride a bicycle without training wheels. She’s excited about the prospect of watching him make friends and excel at baseball and “finding your place among your peers.” http://adayinthelifeofatomlin.blogspot.com/p/letters-to-my-children.html

Ajay Rochester, a single mother and actress in Australia, wrote a letter to her 12-year-old son, Kai, because they argued about money just before he went away to a camp for a month. Ajay squarely addresses money struggles as a source of family friction, specifically her lack of it and his desire to have more of it to spend. She apologizes to him for the tight squeeze, but also pleads with him for understanding and cooperation. “I am the only person who looks after you,” she tells him. “I’m far from perfect, but I do my best.” As she tries to gain some measure of control over her life and his through this letter, she reveals her anger, her shame, her frustration and her disappointment – in herself as well as in him. She was so sad after the argument that she cried. She admits making “many mistakes” in her life, such as dropping out of school. Ajay also shares details about her “horrible childhood” – how her mother beat her up every day and her father screamed at both every night. http://findingmymojo.com/heartbreaking-hopeful-letter-my-son/

P.S. – Please see part 3 tomorrow.

Dispatches: True Confessions: Part 3

We’ve all got something to admit that’s never going to win any beauty contests. Yet dig down deep inside ourselves we do.

A mother who chose to remain anonymous, a domestic abuse survivor, wrote a letter to her “missing child,” a son whose father, her former husband, left home, only to return six years ago, take the boy, then a teenager, and never bring him back. The son lives in the same town as his mother, and she has occasionally “glimpsed him from afar.” But she stays away from him, apparently because his father may be a threat to his and her safety. “It is so hard to choose,” she says, “between seeing him (her son) and keeping us all safe.” In her anguish over losing all contact with her son, she faults herself for being “deficient and powerless” as a mother. “What a failure I sometimes feel myself to be . . . It is the price I pay for you and us to have peace in our lives.” http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/a-letter-to-my-missing-child/

A mother of four and grandmother of nine who chose to remain anonymous wrote a letter to her grandson asking for an “appointment.” She seeks to schedule a private meeting free of distractions because, she says, “somehow I lost you.” Yes, they still see each other. Yes, they enjoy what little time they spend together. But, she says, “for me there is something missing.” She wants more of him – to know what he’s reading, how he feels about life, who his best friends are. “Grant me this hearing, young man,” she implores. If he does, she promises, she’ll go home “content with fleeting hugs and intermittent text messages.” http://alettertomychildren.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/2074/

A mother of three from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who chose to remain anonymous wrote a letter to her four-year-old son Maddox about how she expected never to be able to have children. First, she was diagnosed at age 17 with endometriosis — then, while pregnant, with cervical cancer. That second discovery came in her first visit to a physician to check on her fetus. “By this point,” she writes to her child, “you had already saved my life.” As it turned out, the act of birth evidently rid her of all her cancer cells. Then she learned that her son has autism. Here she declares, as if in prayer, her hopes for his future. letters