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Community Essay : The Lost Art of Letter-Writing Empowers Kids : Even children who have little taste for learning may rise to the occasion when it comes to writing to their heroes.

September 20, 1993|MICHAEL LEVINE | Entertainment public relations executive Michael Levine, author of "The Kid's Address Book" (Putnam/Perigee 1992), a reference book, lives in Los Angeles. and

Most parents mean well and strive to give their children a financial, educational, moral and spiritual foundation. But today, we bear witness to the Nintendo-ization of American youth.

One mother I know actually told me, with pride, that she only allows her child "four hours a day in front of the screen." She was proud; I was paralyzed. Kids who spend an inordinate amount of time watching the tube will surely go down in history--not to mention math, science and English.

Parents have abdicated much of the responsibility to guide their children properly. Into the vacuum have rushed psuedo-heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna or professional wrestlers.

One way to make an improvement is to acquaint children with their own inherent power. If they can, in some way, fashion their own fate and make a direct impact on the world around them, they will come away with a restored sense of self-reliance. They will become who they are, not what the media tell them they should be. One clear and effective way to do that is to teach our kids to write letters.

The contemporary essayist Paul Bowles once wrote: "In other centuries this (letter-writing) was taken for granted. Not any longer. Only a few people carry on true correspondence. No time, the rest will tell you. Quicker to telephone. Like saying a photograph is more satisfying than a painting. There wasn't all that much time for writing letters in the past either; the time that's found generally can be for whatever gives pleasure."

The element of pleasure is missing for most people when contemplating writing. If only they experienced the fun and gratification of letter-writing. Writing is nothing more than guiding a dream, and we all know how enjoyable dreams can be.

For kids, the trick is helping them comprehend that letter-writing will bring results. Although writing can be a pure pleasure in and of itself, writing letters is specifically designed to communicate with someone else. Implicit in the act of writing and sending a letter is the active dialogue between the minds of two people. No, it's not as fast as calling, but I dare say that the pen is mightier than the car phone. Kids instinctively grasp this. I've known shy children barely able to look another human in the eye who can find wondrous forms of expression when they write to another. I've seen the thrilled reaction of a third-grader getting a reply from "Home Alone" star Macaulay Culkin after writing a fan letter. In cases like these, kids can control their destiny in a world ruled by big people.

But what kind of letter should they write, and to whom? The answers are as varied as children. The letter can be a question or a complaint; a request or a declaration of love; a confession or a condemnation. The old axiom "kids are people, too" is undeniably true, and children comprise no less complex constellation of feelings, opinions, hopes and desires than adults do. Not only should we treat them accordingly, but we should engage them in viewing themselves that way.

Writing letters is purposeful work. Kids who normally rebel against learning drills will rise to the occasion when it comes to writing to their heroes, especially when their their letters are answered. Writing is a great habit to develop and a hard habit to break. If kids can develop a love and appreciation for writing, or communicating, or interacting, and for taking action, then they will be well on their way to becoming good citizens, caring adults and builders of tomorrow's civilizations. It all begins with a pen and a blank piece of paper.

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