A letter to my daughter

Mrs Hazel Boltman, Gibson Head of House

A few years ago, as part of an outdoor camp, I was asked to write a letter to my daughter. This was to be given to her to use as part of a self-discovery session. The initial draft of the letter was easy to write. I wrote about how much I loved her, what a wonderful young woman she was and what she meant to me and our family. The lines flew out of my mind and onto the page. Then came the first edit, and an important question: was this really what I wanted to say to my daughter as she became a young woman?

Back to the drawing board and several editions later, I had a letter I was proud to give my daughter. While the initial letter’s sentiments were still there, it had developed into something deeper. It brought to mind a quote from the novel The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, as Bernadette, a member of the book club, encourages Daniel to write a letter of apology to his estranged wife, and fellow book club member, Sylvia. ‘Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter,’ she tells him. Of course, following the genre of romance novels, hurts were healed and loves restored. It made me think about my letter. Was it well-written? Would it have had an impact on my daughter’s life?

Looking back, and having further explored the idea of writing to one’s children, I can see so many places for improvement and so much more that I can, and will, write in future letters. At the time, however, this letter did have an impact on my daughter’s life. She came away from the camp with a deeper understanding of who she was and how deeply valued she was, and is, as a person. She knew what an impact she had made on my life and I like to think that she grew to know me as a person, rather than just her parent.

The experience led me to look for other letters that parents had written to their children, and I came across Maya Angelou in my readings. In her later life, Angelou wrote the book, Letters To My Daughter. While Angelou never had a daughter, she took this opportunity to write words of wisdom to young women she had come across in her life, with each letter taking on a different tone to raise different issues and give advice to ‘her daughters’. There is so much wisdom to impart, lessons learnt to share and experiences to retell, which has now prompted me to again take up the pen and write a letter to each of my daughters — perhaps to give to them now, or perhaps to save for the future. So, what do I now believe constitutes a good letter to pass on to a daughter?

Most letters would start with love. Our love for our children is a self-evident truth, and while it does need to be said, it does not need to be saccharine. They will see through platitudes. It is important to let them know what it is about them that we love. Be specific, but steer away from outward appearances and intelligence. Let them know it is their character and personality that makes them lovable, not their looks or intelligence. The same applies to performance and accomplishments. To be praised only for achieving takes away from the benefits of trying, and plants the thought that in order to be loved, one must reach great heights. To be valued in these ways only puts an incredible burden onto the receiver.

Let them know that you see them, that you know them. Give a specific example of a characteristic you admire in them, such as:

I noticed that you were so generous with your time last week. You sat with your brother and helped him understand his English assignment. You did this even when you were busy yourself. You gave freely and unreservedly. Don’t lose this quality. It is part of what makes you who you are.

Be specific.

Let them know you believe in them. Many teenagers worry about who they are, where they are going and how they are going to get there. Let them know you trust them and their decisions, and that you are there for them when they need you. We cannot decide our children’s lives for them, but we can help them to make good decisions for themselves.

Tell them how they make you proud. All parents have moments when their children melt their hearts. Let them know.

Pass on some wisdom. Tell them about you. What makes you tick, what you love and what you want to do with your life. Tell them about your struggles and how you overcame them. Tell them what it means to be their parent and how they have helped you become a better person. We all have stories to tell and advice to share, and while advice may be rejected, it is still good for young people to hear.

In all this, be genuine. Teenagers are savvy. They can spot a cliché, and if not true, the letter could potentially damage your relationship. Perhaps you are not ready to write a letter to your daughter, and perhaps your daughter is not ready to receive a letter from you, but I would encourage you to try. It is a great learning and growing experience.

Put pen to paper. Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.