This may be a scene at your house: Your daughter comes home from school and empties her backpack on the table. She pushes her books aside to work on later, then carefully collects the notes she’s received from friends throughout the day. Some are folded into elaborate shapes, others are crinkled, which she carefully smoothes out. You might wonder, how does she do any schoolwork with all that writing going on?
If you were a note writer in your adolescence, you probably understand your daughter’s affection for this pastime. If not, it may seem unnecessary and even delinquent. Fear not. Instead, look at note-writing as self-expression. “A certain amount of communication among girls goes unspoken for fear of sounding stupid or revealing something too personal,” says Catherine Dee, author of The Girls’ Book of Friendship. “Girls may feel safer putting something in writing because they can craft the way it sounds to reveal just what they want to say. . . . Also, a girl might be okay with writing something troubling because she feels that writing a note is technically not ‘saying’ anything or betraying a confidence.”
Writing and passing notes may be an annoyance to teachers (it happens in almost every classroom), but not every teacher is unsympathetic. Jim Morrison, who teaches world religions to high school students, says, “I often go up to a girl in class and say, ‘Is that note really important right now?’ Sometimes she says yes it is—and she’ll have tears in her eyes. These girls are very open and they’re beautifully honest in their letters to each other. Writing notes is sometimes a healthy expression of feelings and ideas that need to be expressed right now.”
Indeed, while some notes relay superficial information (“This class is soooo boring!”), others share a girl’s deepest concerns. One teen might write that her parents are separating or that she’s worried another girlfriend has started smoking. Adolescents have far less time than parents imagine to talk privately with their peers during school, so note writing—as well as e-mailing and instant messaging at home—helps girls work out their feelings and grow close to each other.
Take heart in knowing that writing and passing notes is common and usually healthy. However, if your daughter seems distracted from schoolwork or family because she’s writing notes too often, or her teacher mentions it, there may be a deeper problem that needs addressing. In this case, says Sara Shandler, author of Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write about Their Search for Self, don’t harangue your daughter about note writing. Instead, try to find out if there’s anything bothering her. It may be an issue she’s dealing with, or she may be trying to help a friend. In either case, approach her with understanding so she knows you’re there to listen if she needs you. “Be sensitive to what’s going on for your girl, and let her know that you really care,” Shandler says. “She may not tell you everything that’s going on, but a lot of girls feel their parents aren’t really trying and just the effort can count for a lot.”
In the end, realize that when your girl gets to be 17 or 18, she’ll probably feel more comfortable with herself and the note writing will likely decrease. Until then, try to see it as an often positive thing. It doesn’t mean she’ll be another Jane Austen, but at least she’ll view writing as a fun outlet—even after she’s tired of the glitter pens.
Michelle Leise, the mother of two, is a regular contributor to Daughters and other parenting publications.