In my last post, Why Keeping a Journal on Your Kids is So Valuable, I talked about the value of regularly recording your thoughts on your children’s language development, emerging character, and childhood experiences. Fast forward a few decades and that record will become a treasure chest of memories for them as adults.
In the same vein, let me offer another idea that comes from a book by one of my favorite writers on education, Parker Palmer. Parker Palmer is the author of The Courage to Teach and other insightful, graceful books on education and spirit. His work is highly recommended.
If your children or grandchildren are still small, please read on to discover how the observations you make today can have a special impact on their lives many years from now.
Our “original selfhood”
I first read Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak before Lulu and Roy were born, but I didn’t really grasp the truth of what he wrote until after I began watching them grow. (They’re 8 and 5, as of this post.)
Palmer suggests that each one of us is born with an “original selfhood” and that the expression of this in childhood provides clues to the lives we should ultimately lead. In other words, as I now well know, children don’t arrive in this world as blank slates. Each child is endowed with a unique nature and distinct tendencies. This isn’t to say that environment plays no part in shaping a child’s personality and passions; of course it does. But at the same time, our “original selfhood” constitutes the core of our being and its expression throughout our lives—or lack of expression—will have a significant impact on our sense of fulfillment.
Lulu and Roy, for example, are very different little creatures, despite sharing the same parents. Temperamentally, Lulu is emotional and high-spirited, while Roy is more analytical and collected. Although both enjoy bounding about, as most kids do, Lulu seems driven to move and dance through her days, while Roy is often content to sit quietly, drawing an intricate picture or making a new creation from Lego.
Even when it comes to their language development, striking differences have emerged. Though I’m still pleased with her progress, Lulu’s kinetic nature has made it more difficult for her to read with precision: when she flubs a word, she tends to race right past it, even if she didn’t really understand the meaning of the sentence. In the same situation, Roy will stop, do his best to decipher the missed word, and then go back to the beginning of the sentence to grasp the entire thought.
A sketch of their earliest days
What, then, can we do with such observations of a child’s “original selfhood”?
Parker Palmer explains…
If you doubt that we all arrive in this world with gifts…pay attention to an infant or a very young child. A few years ago, my daughter and her newborn baby came to live with me for a while. Watching my granddaughter from her earliest days on earth, I was able, in my early fifties, to see something that had eluded me as a twenty-something parent: my granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person rather than that, or that, or that.
She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. …
In those early days of my granddaughter’s life, I began observing the inclinations and proclivities that were planted in her at birth. I noticed, and I still notice, what she likes and dislikes, what she is drawn toward and repelled by, how she moves, what she does, what she says.
I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my granddaughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her, with a preface something like this: “Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest days in this world. It is not a definitive picture—only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.”
A reminder of identity
We all know, as adults, how vital it is to live a life that feels “authentic” and “meaningful” for us, whatever shape that might take for each individual. The problem is, as we grow, it’s so easy to become sidetracked and lose touch with our true nature. “We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives,” Palmer writes (with a flourish).
The point, then, of composing a letter to your child—a letter that won’t be read until the child is much older—is to provide a reminder of that original identity. If the child, when grown, is no longer aligned with her “birthright gifts,” there will likely be a sort of restless, disconnected quality to her life. (Sound familiar? I’d be the first to admit it! ) By offering clues to her “original selfhood”—in the form of the observations you made in a letter written years in the past—you can help your child regain the deepest part of her identity and potentially live a more “authentic” and “meaningful” life.
So that’s what I did. When Lulu turned 4, and Roy turned 5, I wrote each of them a long letter to their future self. In these letters I shared my observations of their “original selfhood”—their innate characteristics and tendencies—as well as my hopes for their lives and my deep, deep love for them. I poured my whole heart into these letters and then quietly slipped them inside the two big boxes that we keep to hold mementos of their childhood.
Writing the letters was a strange and moving experience. I can’t really picture them as teens or young adults, but I imagined them discovering the letters when they’re older, perhaps even after I’ve passed on, and reading the words I wrote so many years before. I felt like I was reaching into the future to touch them once more, to tell them all the important things that they couldn’t have understood at the ages of 4 and 5, things that I hope will help them find their rightful path in this world and make a fulfilling contribution with the gifts they have been given.