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Want your kids to be emotionally intelligent? Give them pen and paper

EDUCATION
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Handriting is more than a skill — it develops neural pathways that intersect with our emotions.

Confession: I have terrible handwriting. And no, I don’t meant the doctor-sprawl that’s illegible yet beautiful — I mean 4th-grade chicken-scratch print that looks like a child couldn’t quite decide which line the letters belonged nearer, top or bottom.

This isn’t a historical truth for me. In 4th grade, I had beautiful handwriting. So beautiful that my teacher had me write our class Bible verse out to hang on the wall. It was perfect — all loops and slant and even letter placement. I retained that handwriting until high school, when it suddenly became cool to write in print again. Slowly, I abandoned my handwriting. By college, I had developed a weird print-cursive mishmash that wasn’t beautiful by any stretch, but wasn’t rudimentary either. Then came the advent of laptops, and my notetaking-by-hand was replaced by typed outlines.

No longer did I scrawl lines of poetry in swirly letters in the margins — how could one even do that in Microsoft Word? My notetaking began to transform my thinking in ways I didn’t even realize until it was too late. Focused on the task at hand, in stark and unforgiving Times New Roman, my mind lost the freedom to wander, to create, to explore. It was given rigid lines in which to think, and so it conformed.

I don’t write poetry anymore. I don’t write much of anything, actually, and I cringe in humiliation when I have to fill out field trip forms or write thank-you notes. I know I once had the ability to write beautifully, but as it turns out, handwriting is not like riding a bike. It doesn’t just come back. Once you lose it, it’s elusive … perhaps it can be recalled, but not without dedicating hours of practice that working moms don’t have at their disposal.

I’ve felt the loss of longhand writing keenly for decades. As a result, I’ve encouraged my kids to use and develop their handwriting with what sometimes seems like a disproportionate vehemence. But it might not be quite as disproportionate as I thought. According to Medium, writing things out by hand actually accesses emotional pathways in the brain that remain otherwise dormant.

“When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion,” says Virginia Berninger, a professor emerita of education at the University of Washington. Hitting a fully formed letter on a keyboard is a very different sort of task — one that doesn’t involve these same brain pathways. “It’s possible that there’s not the same connection to the emotional part of the brain” when people type, as opposed to writing in longhand, Berninger says.

Honestly, I feel both relieved and newly sad about this. It explains why I no longer write poetry, and also why I feel so sad when I think about the handwriting I’ve lost … but it also makes me wonder just what emotional pathways have been left to gather dust and go dim in the years since I scrawled poetry in the margins of my notebooks.

Nevertheless, there’s a lesson here. Practicing handwriting isn’t some kind of 19th-century torture, like corsets and deep knee bends. It’s a genuine skill that is worth learning for the cognitive benefits alone. Encouraging our kids to develop their handwriting is a way to help them connect their minds with their emotions. It’s a way to help them live a more self-aware, emotionally intelligent life.

That being said, the next time your 4th grader complains about having to rewrite an essay because the handwriting is messy, do not wax eloquent about the cognitive and emotional benefits. I’m here to tell you that those arguments will have your kid’s eyes glazing over in no time as they nod vacantly and wonder privately about your grasp on reality.

Instead, just back up their teacher. Tell them it’s important. Leave the details for later — say, when they’re in high school and they insist on typing everything, from term papers to notecards. That’s the time to explain neural pathways and emotional intelligence. Now, when they’re just learning, all you have to do is reinforce the fact that they should learn. Because the beautiful thing about the brain is that those pathways, once formed, don’t just disappear. They can always be found again and reinforced. So give your kids the gift of establishing them now, when they’re young. You never know how it might benefit them in the future.

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