Help me write letters to my nephew
February 10, 2010 1:14 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to talk to a four-year-old boy?

My New Year's Resolution was to write a letter to my nephew every week. And, so far, I've been sending him two pages or so of handwritten (printed, naturally) stories about what I've been doing, about things I've seen, that sort of thing, with little drawings as well.

But I'm convinced that I'm doing it wrong. I spend most of my time worrying that I'll be talking over his head (despite trying to not use big words). He can't fully read yet - just pick out a few things - so I know his dad is reading them to him, so I shouldn't worry that much, but I still do, especially when he starts properly reading.

And I just don't know what I can talk about to him. I mean, he likes airplanes (of which I know nothing), Wonderpets (again, next to nothing), and Star Trek (of which I know lots, but mostly about how Kirk and Spock are getting it on), and although his dad and granddad are die-hard Republicans, they're also massive geeks, so science talk is always popular.

Recent topics I've included in my letters have been:
* Growing heirloom potatoes
* The Staffordshire Hoard
* Being a web designer
* Chinese New Year and the Chinese Zodiac
* Making terrariums
* New Year's Resolutions
* The weather (always a good one!)

I've thought about including how I went to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the evolution of the banjo, but is that too much?

But what on earth do I include? What's good? What might be over his head? What're good examples of books or webpages or whatever that match the four-year-old mentality? If you have a four-year-old, what sort of conversations do you have?
posted by Katemonkey to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
He's four. FOUR! You are over thinking this, and probably going over his head.

When my son was four (he'll be nine at the end of the month), he liked trucks, and he wanted to be a garbage man. Or a fireman. Or Bob the Builder. He liked Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder, and trucks. Maybe not in that order. His constants were being fascinated by big machinery, uniforms, and especially the confluence of those two themes.

There are videos out there that feature nothing but trucks and heavy constructions equipment rolling around, carrying stuff, etc.; truck porn, if you will. Same goes for fire engines rolling down the street, lights flashing, etc. It's possible his local library carries them, but I know they can be purchased on Amazon/other places pretty cheaply. I'm sure he would love viewing something like that, probably over and over again. You could also tell him about visiting local constructions sites and/or the comings and goings of your local fire station. Even describing how your garbage men/women come by to pick up your trash, and how loud their vehicle is, might be interesting to him.

Sorry if this comes off as stereotyping, but I've been around enough young boys in the last several years to feel I am on solid ground with these recommendations.
posted by mosk at 1:27 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would just tell him ordinary stories - how you made chocolate chip cookies for you and your friends, weekend excursions (how you went running or sailing or to the zoo), or stories about silly little characters - I have a story I tell my daughter about the whimsical life of a little frog. Since i am renovating my house, the frog has a lot of detail on the house he builds on his lilypad and all his relatives and friends. Sometime the lilypad gets disconnected from its root and he goes for an adventure. Every time i tell the story it changes...
posted by zia at 1:31 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also race cars and dinosaurs and fighter jets! (Or all three at once, if possible)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:31 PM on February 10, 2010

Yeah, goodness. Engage him on a visceral level about nature and big things that he would like to have toys of.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:32 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You really sound like you're on the right track. A kid that age would probably be fascinated with the history of root vegetables if it came in a letter from a cool auntie and was read aloud by Daddy. Who knows? Maybe he'll pick up the banjo someday. The only other thing I can think of that my kids & my niece LOVED when they were that age were stories (preferably embarrassing ones) about myself or my sister when we were little. My ten-year-old still says "Mommy, tell me about the time you put books in auntie's pillow...."
posted by SamanthaK at 1:34 PM on February 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think this is wonderful. But I think you're a little too ambitious. My four-year-old could not care less what is in a letter. Getting a letter of any kind is incredibly exciting. Drawings are great. Simple two-sentence notes that he can read all by himself over and over again (with a little help) and memorize are awesome. My son is very bright and can talk for hours about one subject (mostly Star Wars), but focusing on someone else's life for a whole two pages would be a little challenging.

Four-year-olds are pretty self-absorbed. In a couple of years, hearing about your world will probably be fascinating and exciting to him, but right now, he's going to be more interested in the fact that you were thinking about him enough to send a letter. I don't think you need to avoid big words - he probably knows plenty of big words and they won't be a problem if someone else is reading to him, but you should focus more on him than on you. All kids are different, but animals, cars, dinosaurs, trains and adventurous themes (pirates, spaceships, knights) are generally pretty big in most four-year-old boys' worlds.

I don't think you could go wrong with something along the lines of a big picture of a tiger and a short note along the lines of "I love tigers because they . . . . What is your favorite animal? Love, Aunt Katemonkey"
posted by Dojie at 1:38 PM on February 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Were it I - I would like to think that he/his parents will be saving these and with luck re-reading them as he gets older. As above - four years is pretty young. And so feel free to put in stuff he will not understand just now, but will appreciate in later years.

More concretely - check out the Dangerous Book for Boys website and book for cool short ideas.

Also suggest suitable books and why they are good. You are, after all, working on the literacy here.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:39 PM on February 10, 2010

Good for you for writing to your nephew! The art of the handwritten note! I love it!

I write letters to my nieces (6&7) and nephew (7) about every two weeks, they adore getting mail, and I try to write my notes on cute cards that they can look at and occasionally I'll put in a clipping from the newspaper (typically a cartoon or a picture of a flower or truck) or a magazine. In my letters I typically write about the food I've eaten or made that day (my oldest niece is an aspiring chef, so she loves to hear about different types of food, especially if I include, "The fish tacos were not very spicy, but the tomato salsa that I made to go with it - oh man it was SPICY! I put in onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and a little squeeze of lime. I learned the other day that if you need to get juice out of a lime you can roll it on the countertop with your palm a few times and it will give so much more juice, pretty cool, huh?"

I also like to ask them about their day, if they've learned anything new, and I'll occasionally discuss how the weather is, and elaborate on that, and say how I saw a cloud that looked like an elephant and a flower that reminds me of their smiles and how I can't wait for the Spring to come so that dandelions will come back. I often tell them stories about what I did when I was there age, including recently encouraging my nieces as they were selling Girl Scout Cookies for the first time, by telling them about how I had been the top seller for the entire state one year, and that I had walked for what seemed like MILES when I was trying to sell them.

I often try to relate what I am doing to what they are doing in school, for example, the twins are learning about the Civil War (in a very first grade way), so I included in my last letter about how I've visited different Civil War sites, and how I enjoyed memorizing the Gettysburg Address when I was in the third grade. I always try to tie whatever I'm saying back to them, or how it reminds me of them, or how I thought of them while I was traveling for work, etc. I also mention things I've discussed in previous letters, for example a few weeks ago I sent them each a letter before Christmas telling them about how I loved putting up decorations and how much fun it was to count down the days until Christmas came, and sitting under the tree and looking up through the branches at the lights, and just yesterday in their Valentine's cards I mentioned that since I loved decorating for holidays so much, just like Christmas, I put up a heart garland and that I am looking forward to eating Valentine's Day chocolates.
posted by banannafish at 1:41 PM on February 10, 2010

Ugh, their age.
posted by banannafish at 1:43 PM on February 10, 2010

I would add lots and lots of pictures. You can cut them out from old magazines, newspaper, etc. When my boy was 4, the only way I got a moment to read the newspaper was to have him sitting next to me, on the look out for good pictures that he would want me to "open" -- which meant tear out for him to keep.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:50 PM on February 10, 2010

My three year old daughter loves loves loves to hear these kinds of stories, especially retelling of events like when we got our dog from the animal shelter (before she was born), how mom and dad met, about the day she was born (technical details left out but she knows she was in my belly and daddy drove to the hospital, etc -- it's a 5 minute story of about driving, doctors, nurses, meeting our dog for the first time), highlights from a vacation, stories about people she knows.

Tell him stories from your childhood, not necessarily when you were four, he might not internalize it the way you expect, but he will get it. Tell him about your brother or sister, whichever parent is your sibling, when they were young. Are there any family stories everyone else knows that just haven't been "translated" for a four year old?

Dinosaurs, space shuttles and real astronauts (not just Star Trek), animals, snow, beaches (or whatever weather or geographic features are exotic to him), explain some natural phenomenon (sunset, metamorphosis, rust) or how things are made (sheep to sweater).
posted by ellenaim at 1:54 PM on February 10, 2010

If you want to engage him, I'd do it with conversation: "Hey, remember the time we went to the museum/ went to the park/went on that waterslide/saw those funny cows?" Become his pen-pal, even if his dad has to start writing back at first.

I did something similar with my aunt, uncle and cousin when I was in first and second grade. They sent my brother and me little stationery sets with our names on them that matched theirs, and we wrote back and forth once or twice monthly.

It ended up being pretty useful. When our families visited one another, we knew in advance the kinds of things we wanted to do, or what our favorite/least favorite foods were for planning dinners, or desired Christmas/birthday presents.
posted by The Potate at 2:02 PM on February 10, 2010

Try putting this image into words.
posted by sanko at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd say that this is fantastic. Two pages might be a little long. Drawings are great, funny stories - maybe start throwing in a couple of jokes or riddles? Anything you can put in the envelope with the letter would be a great addition, too. Cut out sunday funnies, or print cartoons - check the nickelodeon site for wonderpets downloadables and printables (if his parents haven't already gotten them). Silly stuff like like the fortunes from fortune cookies, anything you might come across. Maybe something like a puzzle piece a week so he can put together a picture in a couple of months?
posted by lemniskate at 2:06 PM on February 10, 2010

What's the best way to talk to a four-year-old boy?

Straight up.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:09 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Getting a letter from one's aunt every week sounds excessive for a person of any age unless one is unusually close to one's aunt (e.g. a mother-like relationship). I can't imagine a four-year-old having the patience for a letter every week from anyone. I agree with the suggestion to, at most, send a very short message (like 1 or 2 sentences) with a picture or trinket or candy or something. And I wouldn't send it every week. Once a month -- 12 times a year -- would be outstanding -- you'd be a super-aunt. Once a week? 52 times a year? Whoa. I can't imagine he wouldn't get tired of them, especially if "he can't fully read yet." In a year, he would be a 5-year-old, still in the process of learning to read, with 100 pages just from one relative. 100 pages is a book -- and an extremely long book for a 5-year-old. Not to put a damper on your resolution, but this has to be scaled back. Also, your topics don't seem very kid-oriented. (The Staffordshire Hoard? Web design?) I would focus more on interacting with him in person and/or on the phone depending on what's convenient for you.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:33 PM on February 10, 2010

Consider sending greeting cards instead of letters. If he can read at all, it's likely still difficult for him. A short message would let him know you're thinking of him and let you be a presence in his life, and you can choose cards with pictures that are fun and engaging. Find out from his parents what he's interested in.

As for appropriate topics, take your cues from him! Give him a call and let him lead the conversation. He'll tell you what he's interested in. If he likes trains, send him a card with a train on it and an interesting fact about trains inside.
posted by leafeater at 2:56 PM on February 10, 2010

I think all your topics are awesome, especially the Staffordshire Hoard, which I'd never even heard of. My sons (all three of them) loved learning about the Chinese Zodiac, and one of them even made a picture of a creature that had different body parts from the zodiac animals of everyone in our family.

The more breadth of topics, the better. To talk down to him or limit your topics to airplanes and TV shows would do him a disservice. He is a little sponge, eager to soak up knowledge. You never know if some topic you write to him about will plant a seed in him - maybe an interest in archeology or gardening, or meteorology!
posted by LauraJ at 2:56 PM on February 10, 2010

Things that were cool to me when I was four:

-The solar system (I had a really awesome 3' tall book with huge cool pictures). I remember particularly liking the roughly-to-scale diagram that showed how small Earth is and how far everything is away from each other.

-Dinosaurs. Oh my god dinosaurs. Get a sheet of dinosaur stickers at the store, cut them out and include a strip of two or three with every letter so he can stick them on things.

-Drawing. If you like drawing, maybe include some simple step-by-steps of how to draw cartoon animals or people or cars.

-The science table in the kindergarten room. It had jars with dead bugs, random skulls of small animals, snake skins and the like.

-Building/making things. If he's into blocks, maybe draw up a blueprint of something for him to build. My brother always wanted me to build parking garages for his hotwheels, and I was more than happy to oblige.

-Messy art projects. Salt-flour dough is easy to make and play with, maybe send him a recipe and some ideas of what to make.
posted by phunniemee at 2:59 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also craft an outdoor scavenger hunt for when the weather gets warmer. Find a stick with lichens on it! Find a roly poly! How many different kinds of trees/birds/flowers can you find? How big is your yard/the park? Are any bugs, frogs, or other animals making noise?
posted by phunniemee at 3:03 PM on February 10, 2010

When I was very young, my Grandmother often sent me letters explaining what she was doing around the house - raking leaves, taking the garbage to the dump, baking bread, dusting the attic. In one sense, SUPER boring material, but I absolutely loved it, because the letter was to ME. She was including me in her life - thinking about me while raking leaves, wondering what she'd write... just tell your nephew that. That means an awful lot to a child.

I have a few other letters from family friends who wrote letters specifically to me about my interests. One of them says something like "I overheard somebody at my work today talking about a science experiment, and I thought about you, because I know you like science so much!" I have TREASURED that letter for many years. It's so rare that a child's particular interests - not his or her school classes or other things that may be "age-appropriate" - are acknowledged.

What a wonderful thing to do for your nephew! I'm sure he'll remember this incredibly fondly when he's older.
posted by Cygnet at 3:08 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Collectible treasures in his mailbox. You just need a few sentences on the back.

You can get interesting, unused postcards for next to nothing on almost any topic or location on eBay for cheap.

For a four year old, getting two page letters is probably as much fun as getting a wool sweater for Christmas.
posted by quarterframer at 3:13 PM on February 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Rather than dumb 'em down, keep 'em short. When he's older, he'll probably want to go back and read them (possibly as an adult) and you don't want to sound like an idiot in the earlier letters. Start short, and stick with one thing/concept/idea; over time, increase the length and complexity and number of things/concepts/ideas. Right now the letter doesn't have to be long to be enjoyed -- it just has to arrive in the mail, which kids love, and arrive regularly so he knows he can count on you. Shortening your notes will help you achieve the regularity, by being less of a burden.

Talking about your childhood, or giving suggestions on a thing he can try, are a good place to start. "Dear nephew, when I was your age I had wooden blocks and a toy train made of tin. Most of your toys are probably made of plastic, but you might have wooden toys. Before bedtime, why don't you see if you can find three toys you have that are made of wood, and show them to your dad? Love, me."
posted by davejay at 3:23 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The littles I write to like e-mail with videos of animals doing things (dogs wearing hats, owls eating mice, mice eating cheese).

They also love real mail, but they prefer postcards. They are small, colorful, sturdy, and readily identifiable in the stack of mail as being MINE MINE YAY MINE!

One knock knock joke or a story about a cat I saw, and there you go.
posted by Sallyfur at 4:17 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Wonder Pets is an animated show about three preschool class animals (a guinea pig, a turtle, and a duckling) who save other animals from various troublesome situations. If he likes it, then he'll probably like anything having to do with animals. And it has some really well-done music too.
posted by candyland at 4:24 PM on February 10, 2010

I think a drawing (with labels that mom or dad can read) is a great idea! Even in a comic-strip style of a story.
posted by amicamentis at 4:39 PM on February 10, 2010

The things you don't know about would be fun to include as examples of learning new things he's interested in, and you might have different perspectives on them or discover nifty tangents that will broaden his interests.

As a letter-writing auntie, they most enjoyed when I was just myself and did things like send doodles or recipes for them to try or tell stories about the family members they were around more.
posted by batmonkey at 5:08 PM on February 10, 2010

How cool is that: an Uncle who cares enough to be committed to writing his nephew regularly.
posted by dougiedd at 6:05 PM on February 10, 2010

I guess all four-year-olds are different, because my three-year-old would love getting the letters you describe. He'll listen indefinitely to chapter books like the Little House books. He's always happy to learn about nature, geography, whatever you want to tell him about. He's a sponge.

You know better than anyone here whether the little fellow is likely to enjoy these letters; it depends a great deal on his personality.

My suggestion: stories from when you were little! My son loves hearing these, even the ones that seem ridiculously mundane to me. And they will involve his mom or dad, which will make them even more exciting.
posted by palliser at 6:13 PM on February 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Keep 'em short, and I agree with putting them on interesting (and funny, and silly) postcards. Anything with animals is great. What you did that day. And -- how you miss him and love him, of course.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:30 PM on February 10, 2010

You are so cool. That is all.
posted by at 8:30 PM on February 10, 2010

Ok, when I was a five year old (girl), a mid-twenties cousin-type-person used to write me letters that were basically composed of stories of the imaginary adventures of me doing stuff that I really liked at the time (space, princess crap, telling lies to get attention, etc.), with illustrations. I read them OVER AND OVER, and still have them now that I am a mid-twenties-type-person.
posted by so_gracefully at 8:56 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stop over thinking it. He's four and getting stuff in the mail when you're a kid is FUN! I bet it's extra special now since most people don't send actual handwritten goodness anymore. Just keep sending him letters and drawings.

I think it's also maybe better to go over his head a little because that means he'll have questions AND it also means that when he reads these letters later on that he will realize you were communicating with him like a real person and not dumbing it down because he was a kid. Kids are really super great and super honest about what they like and don't like if given the I wouldn't worry about getting it wrong cause if you do - it's likely he'll pipe up and you can quickly determine a different subject for next time.

The evolution of the banjo thing sounds completely awesome to me - that would be a good one to add drawings, pictures and include a cd too! Kids are information sponges!
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 11:19 PM on February 10, 2010

A few more thoughts.

The advice here to keep it short, visual, and kid-centered is only temporary. Once he's reading well on his own, the kind of letters you're sending now will be awesome. My first grader would LOVE LOVE LOVE a two page letter about the Staffordshire Hoard or making terraniums. That would be the coolest thing EVER - she would read it over and over, and keep it in a special place, and look for library books on the same subject, and find some kind of related craft or project to do. But probably not when she was four.

Your best advice is going to come from your brother. He's the one reading the letters and seeing your nephew's reactions. Ask him if your nephew sits and listens to the whole letter; if he asks dad to read it again and again; if he asks questions about the subject (or about you). If he does, you're golden. If not, try some of the suggestions here.

On the other hand, if you're going to get bored with coming up with postcard stories about cowboy dinosaurs flying off on rocket ships to fight pirates on the moon every week, you should stick to what you're doing now. Because better to send him something he might not fully appreciate yet than nothing at all.
posted by Dojie at 7:13 AM on February 11, 2010

1) Please keep doing this.

2) This: "my Grandmother often sent me letters explaining what she was doing around the house - raking leaves, taking the garbage to the dump, baking bread, dusting the attic. In one sense, SUPER boring material, but I absolutely loved it, because the letter was to ME. She was including me in her life - thinking about me while raking leaves, wondering what she'd write... just tell your nephew that. That means an awful lot to a child."
is the best advice here.

3) As long as the language is simple, you can really write about anything. But the big key is that you need to connect it to you and him. I think a lot of people here think you're writing a school essay to him every week (which isn't what I think you're doing, but maybe you are).

Let's take your Staffordshire Hoard as an example. If I were writing to my three and a half year old son on this topic I would say "I heard in the news today that a man in England found some buried treasure. Lots of things made out of gold and silver, and there was even a golden sword! Can you imagine how exciting it would be to find a buried treasure? I wonder what he did when he found it - did he yell because he was so excited, or jump around? The story in the newspaper said that he knew right away that what he found was very important and big, so he was smart enough to call for help -- he got in touch with some people who are experts in digging up very old and very important things (they are called archeologists) so that all the things they found could be dug up safely. After they've made a list of everything they've found, and cleaned it all up, a lot of the items will be put in a museum so that everyone can see them and learn more about the people who buried them." ... and so on.

Fred Rogers was a master at this - taking very complex topics and telling kids about them. If your letters sound a little bit ... well, if you can hear Mr Rogers' voice in your head while you're writing the letters, you are on the right track.

Keep it up. And make sure his dad is keeping them.....
posted by anastasiav at 10:26 AM on February 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you're awesome. I absolutely disagree with the few suggestions here from people apparently telling you to dumb down these letters. This is not necessarily or helpful. First, at that age these letters are-- if the kid's dad is doing it right-- likely to be re-read many many times over many years. Your nephew will come to realize what an awesome aunt you are for being so willing to engage him at a high level from such a long time.

Your nephew will learn more from higher level subjects, they will lead to great teachable questions, and will build his vocabulary by context learning and not by rote. And they're a way to encourage great interactions with his dad. It's just a fantastic idea and I absolutely applaud you for it.

I recall hearing a summary of a study-- I believe on This American Life-- a few years that concluded (huge oversimplification, of course) that the best predictor of a child's later academic success is the sheer number of words spoken to them in the first few years of their life. You are doing this, and you're helping his dad do this too. Don't change a damn thing about your approach.

(My kid is 3 and a half; we're reading the Wizard of Oz books at bedtime, and I don't have any illusions that he "gets it", but he does understand that reading is a fun way to end a day and get some time with dad, and occasionally he asks me these incisive questions that makes me realize that he's picking up far more than I give him credit for. Keep doing this! You've inspired me to do something similar for my 5 year old nephew now.)
posted by norm at 12:13 PM on February 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're awesome! Just continue doing what you did. He can ask his dad to explain anything unclear. And I'm sure his dad will tell you whenever there's something the issue with your letters.
posted by Glow Bucket at 6:17 AM on February 16, 2010

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