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Best Parenting Advice I Ever Got

Write vivid short notes to your kids and make it a habit for years...

me and my youngest kiddo

Most memorable advice

The most memorable parenting advice I got ever was from my Aunt Joan who, like me, appreciated small humans but was not all that excited about the baby and toddler stage:

“my advice is have an antelope,” she said, “antelope babies know how to get up and run.”

Most meaningful advice

However, the most meaningful parenting advice I got was from my friend JoAnne when I was only 12 weeks pregnant with my first baby:

“write notes to your kid and start NOW. Here is a blank book. You won’t be sorry.”

That was 1994. I’m still not sorry.

I want to convince you to write notes to your kid. You won’t be sorry either.

Let’s start with what you gain

By investing, say, 10 minutes a month — only 2 hours per year — you will have a written record that will be a joy for you and your family. It’s a treasure trove. A few times a year I share bits and pieces with my kids, often with a photo text of a page from their book. One said it’s like getting a message from a time machine.

You too will build a written and visual record of how you felt, what you noticed, what the kid said, where you went. You might write about what your kid(s) loved, what freaked them out, with whom they played, their favorite songs, how they showed up not only on the first day of kindergarten and high school graduation day, but also on any day during any month. That’s where the juicy parts show up.

Now some hard facts

Even though the overall level of effort and time is quite low, the month-to-month habit of writing for a few minutes won’t come easy. A base level of commitment and practice will be necessary.

Why? Because you won’t consistently want to write these notes when you are dog tired. For example, you won’t want to reach for the book to write a love note when you’re hassled after that tantrum your toddler threw in the grocery aisle, or burnt out after the 11th time he got out of bed to tell you something.

As an important side note: although you may find digital methods that work for you, I am skeptical you will have the focus to take your digital fragments and integrate them into a final product. That’s why I’m partial to using blank books with a pen. Because handwriting on paper in one book is personal, tangible and visible. Someone else, maybe you, can make them digital. Later. Or never.

These are the 4 key steps 

Adapt these steps to suit your life:

  1. Get plain blank books such as the inexpensive composition books at your office supply store and use a marker to write the child’s name and start date on the front. There are reasons not to get overly beautiful journals. You don’t want anything getting in the way of writing. As in, ‘this is such a nice book, my entry should be just as beautiful to match, with no cussing in it or spilled coffee on it.’ No. That raises the bar too high. You are a parent with no use for perfection. You have enough high bars to jump over. Make this one a low bar. Buy the journals or spiral notebooks for a few dollars.
  2. Leave the book(s) lying around where you and others in the household can jot things in them on a regular basis. Grandma is visiting? Ask her to write your kiddo a short note in the book. Your spouse is in the kitchen finishing breakfast and your son says something hilarious? There’s the book on the kitchen counter with something sticky (jam?) on the cover. Write in it.
  3. Keep it real. These notes and sketches won’t be a collection of vacuous “oh my baby you’re so awesome” love notes. No. Go for vivid, go for poignant, rich depth and hard stuff at least sometimes. Remember they aren’t reading this until they are adults anyway. Write them with respect and trust, to these fellow adult humans who, later, can appreciate your particular worldviews, strengths and limits.
  4. Ask your kids to tell you a story and write those down. For example, when they wake up and tell you the weird dream they had, stories they bring home from school, things they say in the car on the way home, the little micro-victories and accomplishments, the moments they show you their inner beauty, fears and joys. And don’t hold back on your moments: the moments you wonder how any human is supposed to withstand the demands of parenting anyway.

These notes will be different than the letters you write them at camp. Remember? They aren’t going to read these until they are adults themselves.

These notes of yours will probably swing from engaging to dull, anxious to calm, utterly hilarious to hopeless. Poignant. Like life.

Excerpts from my kids’ books

1/21/95 (for Oscar)

Dear baby fetus of ours,
We heard your heart beat in December when we went home to Montana for Christmas. Your Aunt Nyla and I listened with a sensitive instrument called a doppler. Neato! Already you’re precious somehow and we don’t even know who you are. And frankly, you look pretty creepy at this stage. Our reference book says you probably weigh less than one ounce at this time.

8/28/95 (for Oscar)
Dear Oscar, you are nearly 6 weeks old – now a substantial human being who can smile at us. We are complete hogs for your smiles.

10/2/95 (for Oscar)

Oscar pie, today was an awful day for your dad and me. I hope it was somehow okay for you, but I don’t really know (and will never really know, argh!!!).

Took you to daycare in my building so I can continue to nurse you on site. You are the youngest baby of 8 infants there. You are just under 11 weeks. Hal said he walked around campus with a lump in his throat and a hole in his heart all day today thinking of you. I walked around with lumps in my nursing boobs and tears in my eyes. p.s. I watched the bigger babies slobbering on toys and am now horrified that you will soon be swapping spit with them. It’s flu season and you’re a little helpless infant. I like my job, but is daycare worth it at this age?!

11/1/99 (for Oscar)
Dear Oscar, you are obviously a genius 4-year old:
you dictated the best thank you note to Kathy and Al. Here is exactly what you told me to write:

“Thank you for everything you gave me. I like how your faces look. I like my bug and I like it to glow. Thank you for the candy. Thank you for saying hi to me. Adios.”

12/7/12 (for Oscar)

Middle of the night 3 am text from you before you leave for China for your senior year of high school in Beijing. You said, “I took a walk up to the top of Beattie after I dropped (friend’s name) off. I’m not worried about what’s coming, I’m just contemplating. I think a lot. I’m an adult soon. I’m starting a whole new chapter in my book of life…”

11/3/98 (for Willa)
Hi little peanut. You are a 15-week old fetus at the moment. And thanks to my friend JoAnne, I’ve got a routine down now of writing you letters that you can read much later. She gave me the idea and a big brown blank book when I was pregnant with Oscar 4 years ago. You have one too! Yours is blue.

11/20/00 (for Willa)

Dear Willa, you LOVE to go outside at night and look at the moon (full tonight) and sing twinkle twinkle little star with your dad: “how I de de de de de” is your language for the line: “how I wonder what you are” – so creative!

9/25/13 (for Willa)

Wow Ms. Willa, you push my irritation buttons like no one else in this world can. Why is that? Argh! Double Argh argh!! In other news, you came home from your first week of 9th grade and said, “I am WAY more suited to high school than middle school…” I love you like crazy.

12/24/17 (Willa)

Dear Willa, here we sit together at home, below zero, snowing outside, you lying on the couch reading your book, and me writing. So cozy. We tromped around in the woods together yesterday to find our tree. We got a big ponderosa pine, smelly and sappy in the best way. After we got it put up and put the lights on together, we realized she’s such an epic, beautiful tree we didn’t want to mess with our other decorations beyond lots of lights this year.

You: beautiful. Engaged in your chosen field and learning, loving your new friends and faculty in your acting program, living your life.

And brooding too, off and on. Yesterday, tears in your eyes, “I’m feeling a little divorce-y being home for the holidays,” you said. “You and Scott want me here, dad wants me at his house…I just want to be.” You chew the inside of your cheek. You fret.

Welcome to adulthood. I love seeing how able you are. Solid and true. Remember that story about the science experiment about the trees in the bubble that grew up straight but fell over because they hadn’t had the wind and weather howling over them teaching them to bend and keep growing anyway, to get strong and sturdy? What a great story that is. YOU are a resilient tree of a young woman. It’s so sweet to know you.

Final notes of encouragement

Parenting is a wild ride no matter what. Please don’t make this writing of notes to your kid(s) another “we have to do this to be the best parents” — you wouldn’t do that to yourself to yourself would you?

Especially if you already enjoy writing, then this writing in blank books scheme is probably a fit for you! Go for it.

Start now or whenever you want. Do it your way.

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