E-xcellent Mail – 2007

Letter-Writing Advice for Parents in an Electronic Age
Oh sure, I could wax sentimental about the bygone days of handwritten letters. Even as I type this on my speedy new laptop, there’s a Mont Blanc fountain pen on my desk, a gift from my wife for our 10th anniversary. Nothing quite matches the look of a handwritten letter, especially one written with a fountain pen on cotton stationery. (Like all my love letters were.) It adds personal, calligraphic, and tactile dimensions to an otherwise two-dimensional experience. And I’ll admit it: My fondest camp correspondence memories also include perfume, which my 9th-grade girlfriend used to dab lovingly on her letters to me. Maybe that’s why the smell of gardenia still brings me back…

But back where? Isn’t this the electronic age? UGTBK! Handwritten letters are out; e-mail, texting, and IMing are in, TYVM. Technology companies deftly set up one-way e-mail systems for camps that allow parents to send daily messages to their kiddos. That’s all well and good, and parents’ e-mails get seamlessly distributed with the regular mail. But when I read some of these e-mail “letters,” I cringe. SMHID. The stuff sounds more like an interoffice memo than a compassionate letter from a primary caregiver.

Compare:

To: Chris
From: Dad
Subject: Re: Hi Dad
Date: 7/24/05

chris: TYVM for 7/23 fax…glad baseball was fun. FYI, mom liked the lentil stew i made on fri. LOL –dad

With:

To: Chris
From: Dad
Subject: Exploding Baseballs and Zucchini
Date: 7/24/05

Dear Chris,

It was great to get your letter yesterday. I read it once at the office and again when I got home. Your baseball game sounds amazing! When you get home, I want to hear more about the last inning and the double play you and Pat handed to Camp Dewitt. It must feel good to be getting better and better at baseball.

Last night, I made Mom’s favorite: lentil stew. We’ve also been eating lots of the zucchini, which has been exploding from the garden. Don’t worry, though. When you come home, we’ll cook lots of the things you like: mac and cheese, lasagna, and barbeque.

I’m psyched you’re having an awesome time at camp. Write again when you have time. We always love hearing how you’re doing!

Love,
Dad

In the first “letter,” you can see how the acronyms, lack of punctuation, lack of capitalization, brevity, and absence of a formal salutation or closing make it seem paltry. This e-mail is more of an afterthought than a piece of loving correspondence. The second e-mail is much better. It doesn’t have perfume or handwriting, but at least it resembles a letter. The content is newsy and upbeat and the sentences are complete. The grammar and punctuation aren’t superfluous; they are a structural indicator of care. And after all, isn’t that what a camp letter is supposed to do?

This past summer, I held up a blank envelope to a group of 11-year-olds. “Which corner does the stamp go on?” I asked. One of the eight of them got it right. That’s worse than chance accuracy. When I asked, “And where does the return address go?” the chorused reply was, “What’s a return address?” IRMC.

So, in addition to recommending to all your camper families that they pack pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes in a zipped freezer bag, I also recommend that camp directors coach parents on the best ways to write a personal, substantive e-mail. The electronic format lends itself to cold concision, but even e-mail can show love. And if the power fails, you can always bust out the Mont Blanc.

Camp directors can purchase this professionally crafted handout – and many others – by visiting Chris Thurber’s CampSpirit. Proceeds go to camper scholarships.