The next post in my little series.
One of the hardest parts of taking dictation from a kid can be getting started.
If you sit down at a table with a pencil and a piece of blank paper and say, “Tell me a story and I’ll write it down,” you might get lucky, and you might get a story.
Then again, you might find a kid standing beside you with his or her first case of writer’s block. Unwittingly inflicted by you. That’s not the effect you’re after.
From a kid’s perspective, it can be intimidating to have a parent sit down and suddenly say, in effect, “Okay, I’m ready. Entertain me.” That’s a tall order. For a kid not used to performing in this way, such a request can be anxiety-provoking. In which case you’re likely to get a response like, “I don’t want to.”
Then again, for some kids, having a parent sit down with a piece of blank paper and a request for a story is as good as being asked, “Do you want to lick the frosting beater?” My youngest, for example, is a born storyteller. The kid has not shut up since the day he learned to babble. He has told stories from the time he could string a few words together, to himself as he played, to anyone who would listen. For him, any offer to write down a story has been half an hour in heaven, from the time he was quite young, and he’s always been thrilled to comply. More often, he begs me to write down his stories. If you have a kid like this, get your pencil and paper and go to it. (I’ll have more suggestions for how you might want to go to it in my next post.)
For other kids, you may have to proceed with a bit more caution. Instead of broaching the subject as you sit at a table with a blank piece of paper before you, try bringing it up in a hypothetical conversation, when your child is in a good mood. Say something like, “You know, some kids like having their mom or dad write down their ideas.” You might make a few suggestions, such as those I describe below. For a lot of kids it’s important that you don’t limit the possibilities to stories: fiction isn’t every kid’s cup of cocoa. “If I were to write something down for you, do you have any ideas about what you’d like me to write?”
I received an email recently from a mom who explained that her eight-year-old had a tough time coming up with ideas when mom asked to take dictation from her. But recently she asked again and,
“…she immediately got excited about dictating letters to distant friends. Bingo. That will be a good start.”
Yes, bingo! Smart girl! Letters are a great idea for dictation: they’re real, authentic reasons for writing, and even better, they’re likely to be writing that gets a tangible response. We all know how much kids love to get letters in the mail.
(An aside: when my daughter was ten or eleven, she and a local friend came up with the idea of writing letters to each other in the character of girls from the nineteenth century. Both were fans of the Little House and American Girl books, and they had a fine time coming up with characters for themselves, complete with sprawling families of siblings that included, of course, twins. Lulu was a fairly fluent writer at the time, and she loved the opportunity to write in old-fashioned script, so I didn’t take dictation from her in this case. But I would have, if she wanted me to. And she was always thrilled to find a letter in the mailbox from “Abigail.” Something like this might be fun for other historical fiction-loving kids.)
What types of writing could you suggest to your child? My best advice here is to consider that very particular, quirky, individual child. What topics get your kid worked up, and talking fast? Life on Mars? Breeds of dogs? Baseball statistics? Classical ballets? Don’t discount the things you might rather not talk about: Pokemon characters, American Girl doll outfits, the Super Mario brothers, Webkinz (yes, typing that z makes me shudder.) Try to get over your disapproval and listen. The trick is to find what captivates your kid and start there. You might suggest writing down a list if your child likes to categorize. For kids who like animals or fantastical creatures, you might suggest they describe one. Some kids might like to tell an original story based on a famous character; others might feel more comfortable retelling a completely unoriginal tale. You might ask your kid to describe his or her quite-plausible scientific theory, or the one that seems fascinatingly ridiculous. Anything is fine. The main goal is to start with the kid’s interests and to get his or her thoughts on a page.
(As I’m typing this, Mr. T is rattling off all of the parts of Sponge Bob that are illogical, such as how it makes no sense that there are swimming pools when the whole story is already supposed to take place under water. Could he dictate a list of The Implausibilities of Sponge Bob? If it seems like a fun idea to him, why not?)
If your child seems leery of your initial mention of dictation, back off. Don’t mention it again anytime soon. Instead, after some time has passed, try this: When you find your child talking about one of those personal passions, if you possibly can, ask if you can write down what he or she is saying. Right then, right there. If the time isn’t right, wait, and try again the next time. Chances are, since you’re asking to transcribe something your child is excited about, and the talking is already under way, he or she may comply.
Some kids may still balk. If your child does, wait once again until he or she is talking about a personal interest, and then ask if you can record those thoughts for your own personal records. Explain that parents take photos to remember what their kids look like at different ages, and it’s fun to remember what they say as well. You may have read Cindy’s comment last week, in which she did just this:
“…I took dictation from them twice this summer and was fascinated by what came out of their mouths. I wrote their stories in my own journal, which did two important things. One, it got their attention (they KNOW the importance of my personal journal) and conveyed to them that something worthwhile was happening. Two, the stories are safe in my journal and won’t get lost in the shuffle of all the papers I save.”
This technique may work for more leery kids, I suspect, because it may help them stop worrying that mom or dad is trying to teach something, or make them do something schoolish. Having someone, on the other hand, take an interest in that thing you’re most excited about and write it down can feel very different. It can be quite satisfying. That’s what we’re after.
For the most reluctant kids, try to catch them in the act. Wait again until they’re talking about something that excites them. Then, without explaining what you’re doing, see if you can get some of those lines down on paper. After you’ve transcribed a few, explain, as described above, that parents often like to keep records of their kids’ thoughts at different ages. Read back what you have, and ask if you’ve transcribed it correctly. Many kids will be happy to correct and elaborate at this point. Yes, this technique is a bit sneaky–but sometimes being sneaky works.
The idea behind all of these methods is that once kids get a taste of offering dictation, they often realize that it’s easy and fun. And that’s what we’re going for, for all of those reasons mentioned in my last post.
Feedback time! What topics have your kids enjoyed dictating to you? It would be fantastic to have a list of possibilities for other parents to suggest to their kids. Please share! It would also be helpful to hear from parents who have had a difficult time getting started with dictation. Why do you think your child has been hesitant? Do you think any of the possibilities suggested above might help?
Thanks so much to those of you who have commented already. I was away for the long weekend, and without internet access. I have some catching up to do and will be responding. I love to hear from you.
Next post: what a dictation session might look like. (Also, I’m working on gathering photos to accompany all this wordiness…)