April 03, 2012

How To Raise A Writer

Have a kid who wants to be a writer?

My parents did, too.

What did they do to encourage, support and give me room to write?

In no particular order…



My parents, Bette and Jim



1. They put me outside all the time to play.  I spent my first ten years in California and my brother, sisters and I lived outside. I chased butterflies, played hide and seek, climbed trees, and tried to run my brother over on my bike. (No kidding. We have it on film). Kids need to be outdoors making up stories and games and running around with other kids. It fosters a creative, inquisitive spirit and early insight into people and relationships…and that helps grow a writer.

2. My mother bought me tons of books. This was at a time when she had three dresses. Three. Total. That’s what she could afford when she had four young children.  My parents were very frugal. Their parents had lived through the Depression and they were taught to save money. Save more. Save again. Their motto: A disaster could happen at any time, and probably will, so be prepared!

We did not get a lot of clothes and if we wanted more as teenagers, we were told to get out there and get a job, which we did. But books…well, that was another thing. You cannot become a writer without being a reader. Go to the library with your kids, buy them books. The world opens up to young minds as soon as books are open on their laps.

3. They spent a lot of time with my siblings and I. My parents were always there. Years ago I kept hearing the saying, “It’s not the quantity of time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality.” That was bull then, and it’s still bull. Of course quality time is good, but kids need their parents around all the time, even if they’re upstairs on facebook or have just slammed the door in your face.

Be there for your kid, listen to them and their stories, buy them journals to write in and neat pens, read the same book together, talk about favorite writers. Discuss why some books are so catchy, so interesting, and others are boring. Discuss the author’s voice, word choice, how the book ended, the overall theme. What’s the lesson here? What did they learn? It gets them thinking about writing – and how to write compelling stories.

People will says that some of Americas best writers had tragic childhoods. I don’t recommend this at all for your kid.

4. They valued God first, family second, and hard work and academics third. That’s the framework I grew up with and my parents never strayed from that framework. Kids need structure and tons of love to walk the walk they need to. Structure and love is a breeding ground for imagination and creativity. When you feel safe, you can daydream. When you feel loved, you can build, sing, write poetry, and star in your own show in the backyard.

When you have people who care about you and like your artwork and stories, you start to believe in yourself. You start to believe you can do it. You start to love words, and to be a writer, that is crucial.

5. They allowed me to be myself. My mother’s mother was a southern belle with a tragic past who gave my mother, via DNA, that same southern belle personality. My mother was an English teacher, kind, polite, absolutely lovely and hospitable…a magnolia with one of those spines filled with iron. I was a rebel. I had a mouth, I had a temper, I did things I should not have done, and I had a wild streak. My parents still loved me, and I knew it. They tried to trim the edges, smooth the feathers, teach the lessons…but they never squashed my spirit. That’s key. A squashed spirit will produce a squashed voice. A squashed voice will never write.

6. They did not try to mold me into their vision of what they wanted a daughter to look like or be.  You would be hard pressed to find a more homely looking girl than me. No kidding. I hardly remember brushing my hair until I was in middle school. I was a tall, gangly, frizzy haired kid who had about as much style as an elephant.

My mother bought me the clothes I wanted to wear. My sister wore the same purple pants and purple sweatshirt every day for a year.  I had a fondess for my low-rider butterfly pants. My brother didn’t stay clean for five minutes so it didn’t matter what he wore.

The point is this: Allow your kid to grow up organically. Let them choose how they want to look. Follow them in their interests. Support their talents and natural skills. If it’s not a big deal, don’t make it one. Kids never work well when they fill boxed in.

And remember: Writers, and kids who want to be writers, hate boxes.

7. They did not spoil me, or any of my siblings.  As teenagers, we worked. We did not expect our parents to fly in with anything fancy, in fact, it never occurred to us that they would. They let me take my knocks. Sulky behavior got me nowhere. Whining got me less. Sharp words were used when I was obnoxious. You do your child no favor by allowing them to become a brat. I saw this when I was a teacher.

Grown up brats don’t listen, they don’t take constructive criticism,  they can’t see beyond themselves, they’re selfish, they lie, they lack compassion, empathy and understanding, emotionally they’re out of control. In their heads: They are the world. All lousy qualities for becoming a writer.

8. My parents ultimate goal was to build character in their kids. My parents praised accomplishments fairly lightly, because they didn’t want me to ever think their love was based on outside accolades.  They concentrated on building my character and helping me to see the skills and good qualities within myself, not liking myself ONLY IF the world thought I was worthy.

You need relentless determination, focus, a willingness to work hard, and a clear view of how to chase down your writing goals if you are going to survive in the literary world. All those characteristics come from within.

9. They encouraged my writing and believed in me, but they made sure I went to college and got a degree.  I received two degrees in education, Go Ducks, and became a teacher so that I could support myself until I became a full time writer.

Do not allow your child to spend an outrageous amount of money in college to get a writing degree, unless she is double majoring or minoring in writing. She may think she will get that writing degree and become an overnight success.  99.99% of the time, she is dead wrong.

Your child needs to be able to support herself while becoming a writer, hard work will build her character. Have her major in something practical, take tons of writing classes, and be employable. There is little that is more dream-killing than being buried in college loan debt, with no employment, living in your parents’ basement. This is not an atmosphere a writer will thrive in.

10. They encouraged travel. I paid for three trips to Europe before I was 24 by working summer jobs and by working every term in college except the first one. That was why I was always broke. My first trip was for seven weeks with my sister hiking around with backpacks living in hostels. Writers need food for their heads. Traveling is one of the best ways to get that food.


I wish my mother had lived to see my first book published.  I know she would have been delighted, but not because my name was on a book.  Again, outside accolades didn’t mean much. She would have been happy because of the personal  characteristics that got me to that place, she would have been happy because I was happy and not a sappy mess anymore, getting beat down by rejections. She would have been happy because I had a goal and I made it to that goal. (Okay, there were a lot of tears and head banging along the way).

To be quite honest, one of the reasons my father was so happy I published was because I didn’t break one of his most important, adamant rules: Never quit, Cathy. Never quit.

Tell your kids that, too. Never quit.

Now go raise a writer.


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2 Comments to “How To Raise A Writer”

  1. Woman, you amaze me!

  2. what an inspiring post. thank you for the reminder of what it means to truly parent a child, whether they aspire to write or not. i am taking a chunk of this away with me and applying it to my ten year old daughter who likes to wear the same clothes everyday, refuses to brush her hair, challenges my sense of order at every turn, and yet manages to brighten the room with her creativity and love. she is not everyone’s cup of tea but i suppose she doesn’t need to be. your words are an encouragement.


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Cathy Lamb
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