January 10, 2007

A Different Kind of Love Letter

1501 page16 capROWING UP, I REMEMBER BEING spanked only once. However, I do remember many other forms of discipline—the “I’m-very-disappointed-in-you” talks, the occasional groundings. But there’s one form of discipline I will never forget.
Like most young siblings, my sister and I fought. “Mom, she’s wearing my shirt again!” “I was using that!” “Shut up!”
Finally, our mom became so tired of telling us to stop fighting that she came up with a new plan. She sat us down in two chairs at the kitchen table.
“Girls, I’m sick of all this fighting,” she said with a sigh. “You should be thankful that you have a sister to play with. You need to act like you love each other. So, this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to write love letters. They have to be two pages long, and include all the reasons you love your sister. And they have to be true. Don’t think for a second that you can write garbage.”
My sister and I slouched in our seats. What a horrible punishment! I fight with her because I don’t like her. How am I ever going to write two pages? This stinks!
But we did it. And to our surprise, we were able to come up with two pages’ worth of good things about each other. And the punishment worked. My sister and I did stop fighting. I can’t say that we never fought again. But every time we fought, we were reminded of all the reasons we liked each other, all the reasons we wrote in the love letters.
Showdown at Summer Camp
Two years ago I was a first-time counselor at summer camp. During my third week I soon found myself in over my head.
1501 page16It was preteen camp, and the girls acted like preteens! Alarms rang at 6:00 a.m., waking sleepy, crabby girls so they could be ready for breakfast by 8:00 a.m. Hours were spent curling hair and applying bright makeup—even though first period was swimming. Missing shirts, lost cameras, and stolen boyfriends resulted in name-calling, fighting, and snobby looks.
“I’m not stupid. You are!”
As a rookie, I didn’t know how to handle all the squabbling. First, I tried raising my voice. “Girls, stop fighting right now!” That would get about five minutes of silence, only to be interrupted by a snotty, “It’s her fault.” Next, I decided to take away rest period. Instead of resting, we walked around the flagpole. This worked for a little longer, but after the walking, it was right back to name-calling.
“You’re such a snob!”
“Well, at least I’m not fat like you!”
I decided to single out the two girls who seemed to be the instigators. Not only did they walk around the flagpole, but they carried rocks, too. This proved to be the most effective, stopping the fighting for a couple of days. But by Thursday, the fighting had resumed. I was out of ideas and fed up.
As I lay awake in bed Thursday night, I wondered what else I could do to make my girls stop fighting. What would Mom do? I wondered. Then I remembered the love letter.
When rest period arrived the next day, I revealed my plan to the girls. “Don’t get too comfy in your sleeping bags. We aren’t taking a nap today,” I announced as whines erupted from the bunks. “I’m giving all of you a piece of paper, a pen, and the name of another girl in this cabin. You’re going to write her a love letter about why you like her. The letter has to fill the whole page. Don’t think you can write big and write less. And don’t make things up, either. It has to be true and from your heart.”
“What if we don’t get done by third period?” one camper questioned.
“Then you won’t be going to third period,” I stated.
“But what if we can’t think of enough reasons to fill a whole page?”
“Sooner or later you will. If we have to sit here ’til Sunday, you’ll fill up the whole page,” I threatened.
Despite the horrified looks on their faces, my instincts told me that this would work. And to their surprise, all of the girls finished the letters by third period.
Later that night after campfire, as the girls were climbing in bed, I once again interrupted, “Don’t get too comfy. We aren’t going to sleep yet.”
“Oh, no! Not another letter,” they moaned.
“No, we aren’t going to write another letter. We’re going to read our letters. First, you’re going to read the letter that you wrote, and then you are going to give it to the girl it’s about.” Despite some grumbling, one by one, the girls read the letters aloud.
“I like Sarah because she is always smiling. On Tuesday I didn’t want to ride the tube by myself, so she rode with me,” read one.
“Mary is always talking about Jesus. She sings so loud at campfire, and she always volunteers to pray. She is also good at capture the flag,” read another. Walls came tumbling down. Girls who just minutes before wouldn’t talk or even look at one another were now hugging.
Even though only one more day of camp remained, our cabin was changed. For that one day there was no yelling, name-calling, or snobbish looks. The “love letter” was two for two.
Creative Discipline
Discipline is important in raising children. Children want to have boundaries; they need to know that someone loves them enough to discipline them. However, different children require different discipline. Some children respond best to more “creative” discipline.
So, in case you find yourself with a child who’s in need of creative discipline, try using the love letter. In our family it has a perfect record.
Angela Olson was a senior English education major at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, when she wrote this article.