Finding good penpals - tips & techniques

It's not easy with penpals our age. It's been many years for me (Thomas) since I started. I've had some really good luck. I also had good people to show me how. Trevor and now Timmy are having good luck with the same methods. Here are my secrets for having, and being, a good penpal...

First, some things that you should know about me. The suggestions below should work for you even if you are not the same as we are. Of course your personality will be different.

  • The longer I keep a penpal, the better.
  • I want to know lots about my penpals, like they were living next door.
  • I like talking about technology and personal lives best.
  • I am not all that interested in a list of someone's hobbies or sports or music unless I share them.
  • I want several penpals, several friends.
  • I want penpals who are allowed to go out onto the web and surf and do research.
  • I want to write e-mail letters, not chat, not play Facebook.
  • I don't want drama, girls need to meet the same standards as guys.
  • I want to have penpals close to my age, unless they have a special skill that I can learn from them.
  • I am not going to pay for anything on the internet.

Find 10 penpals, since 8 of them will quit the first month. That means responding to at least 30 recent penpal ads. The first step is to decide that you want a penpal or two. That you want to write back and forth and share things about yourself. And that you will want to continue in the months to come. "I'm bored" is the worst reason in the world, along with "I don't read and write very well, so this will be good for me". It would be good to have in mind what kind of penpal you would be comfortable with. Someone who is a lot like you, or someone who is different. Learning about different cultures around the world is a reason you hear pretty often, but the task of making yourself understood to someone who speaks little English, knows nothing of American slang, and who sees everything much differently than you do - it's just an awfully big job. Chances that such a person will become a buddy you can share with are smaller than you might think.

Once you have decided that you want to find some penpals and stick with it, next is finding websites that list penpal ads. We have listed our favorite sites on another page (see the menu above). Most web penpal sites are in the business of matching up adults who want to try "internet dating". I would advise staying away from sites that don't have a large, active kids section. Understand that while some sites will show you an email address, most of them will require that you register and place an ad before they will let you contact any of their penpals. Other sites never let you write e-mail, you are forced to send messages to the other kids right there on their website. They want to be able to read your messages to make sure you are being "nice". We don't mess with those sites. I like it best when we find penpals who can use real e-mail and surf the real web. If a parent has too many rules for their kids, you need to know it from the beginning. There are many younger kids that are not allowed to go look at websites you tell them about, or are not allowed to "join" websites, even with parents sitting right there watching. You need to know these things from the start.

I like to look for good penpal ads and respond to them. Better than placing an ad for myself. I can judge a little better that way, if it's from someone who cared enough to write a good ad. I use penpal websites to find advertisements placed by kids looking for penpals. There are lots of sites out there, but not many are only for kids, or used by kids who are experienced at writing penpals. The sites we use have to have lots of fresh ads. And they must give the date the ad was placed. With kids our age, an ad two months old is almost useless. If you don't write to someone right away, they forget and lose interest.

Some sites require you to register and place an ad of your own. Nothing wrong with that. You can always go back and improve your ad later. Normally when you change your ad, it will bring it to the top of the list, and that's good. You may want to do that often. If you can't write an interesting ad, then why should anyone think you can write an interesting letter?

I usually don't get lots of replies by placing an ad and waiting. I like it better to answer ads. That way I can control who I am writing to a little better, and say something personal just to them, making it more interesting. Tell them why I would be a good penpal for them. So the first step of the choosing process is mine. Anyway, it is someone's responsibility to create an ad, otherwise the whole system wouldn't work.

As soon as I relpy to a penpal ad, I make a copy (you really should learn to copy/paste) or at least take notes using pencil and paper. You will be glad you did later.

Let's quickly mention the penpal safety rules for kids. It's real simple. Just don't tell anyone exactly who you are or exactly where you are. Don't tell people how to find you in "real life". Your street address, phone number, what school you go to, you may even want to change your last name or not use a last name. You don't have to tell them what town you live in, especially if its a small town. Make sure nobody can find you and kidnap you or whatever. You know how parents are. Don't let anyone force you to talk about something you don't want to talk about. Always be willing to share your email with your parents. It will make them feel better and learn to trust you as you get more experience.

On the other hand, there are some basic things that penpals will expect you to share with them. Your age, boy/girl, your country and state (or section of the country), what your family is like, what your hobbies and interests are. It is normal for others to ask you lots of questions. They are trying to help you to know what to say. Don't let this worry you. You don't have to answer any questions you don't want to. We all have parents and rules to follow. Just explain that you can't answer, if a question bothers you. But don't freak out. Some parents are really weird about all this penpal safety business.

I am always interested in whether a penpal is living with only one parent, or has two homes with parents that are separated, or lives with grandparents in the house. I want to know about brothers and sisters and how they all get along. I want to know if they live in the city or out in the country. Some idea about if they always get what they ask for, or if money is tight. How they get along with their friends, or if they even have friends. Are they popular at school? Other people might consider these kinds of questions too personal. To me, it's necessary to really get to know someone and find interesting things to write about.

I don't really care about what sports you play, or what your favorite music artists are, or the name of your cat. I have the best luck when we talk about IDEAS and FEELINGS. Not just facts. The same things I would talk about with a friend who lived next door.

It is smart to ask for what you want when placing a penpal ad. If you want only girls, or only penpals from Japan, say so. It will save everyone lots of trouble later. When writing an ad, don't say "anyone and everyone", be more specific. Some of the best friends are those who don't like the same music you do, or live the same way you do. They don't have to have the same interests. If you mostly want a penpal just to discuss one topic, say so. In an ad, tell the best things about yourself. Not just your hobbies. Do you like school, or like to read, or like to play sports all the time? What do you want most from a friend? Most people don't care about the color of your hair or eyes. At least I don't. Maybe girls do. If you are 12, maybe you want penpals 9-13, or maybe you want penpals 12-15, depending on what you are like. Tell them that too. Don't be afraid to try a penpal younger than you. Some of us are pretty smart. Write your ad ahead of time, on paper. It should make you sound interesting. And it should show that you can write clearly and think of lots to say.

The biggest problem with penpals our age is keeping it going. It seems like many of your penpals quit on you after a couple of letters. They get bored, or stop checking their e-mail, or can't ever think of something to say. It's up to you to help them, to be a good penpal to them, to ask questions, to share lots of things in your life with them. Keep writing to them. Don't write to them, then wait for a letter just because it is "their turn". Still, most of them will quit writing pretty soon. So you need to get several penpals to begin with. I don't know why kids who hate to (or cant) read and write will advertise for penpals.

Don't be rushed when writing penpal letters. Don't write one or two lines, and call that a letter. And don't let your penpals do that either. It really helps to keep a notebook (yes, pencil and paper) about your penpals. That way you can keep them straight in your mind. And before you sit down to write a letter, write down a couple of things you want to talk about. Something that happened the other day. An idea you had and almost forgot about. Things they asked you about in their last letter. It is better to wait a day or two until you can write a good letter, instead of sending a stupid two-line email immediately.

Everyone expects that you will only have penpals around your own age. If you want to learn something from someone older (like from a help forum or hobby group), get your parents involved with you. It's not wrong to write to someone older, but you need a parent to be in on it and help make it go right. Most always you just want friends about your own age.

Put something useful in the "subject" line when you write an email. Since many of us get lots of spam (junk mail), it's nice to put "penpal" in the subject line. If the email address looks like it belongs to your penpals family, parent, or older sister, be sure to put your penpals name in the subject line also.

Please don't give your penpals e-mail address out to internet companies so that they can add it to their junk mail lists. Don't send "greeting cards". Those are free because both of you get put on lists that are sold to spammers. Don't sign your penpals up for things. Don't use the "tell your friends about this website" features on the web.

I don't use the "address book". I have the email addresses written down in my little notebook instead. Mostly I just "reply" to their last letter. Virus programs often will send the virus out to everyone in your address book. Using the address book in Microsoft Outlook Express is always a mistake. Most virus programs look for it. If your parents don't mind, it is best to get your own webmail address, like at Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo, instead of using Outlook Express. Get help signing up for a free webmail account, they ask some questions that are hard to understand.

When sending email, the "CC:" box is for more addresses that are to receive a carbon-copy of the email. But the people who get the email will see the addresses of all your other friends. Better to use the "BCC:" box, which is the same thing but it is blind-carbon-copy. The addresses you put in there will get a copy but the addresses are hidden. Some people don't like to have you giving out their e-mail address to others.

One more thing. When I see "Fwd:" in a subject line, even if its from a penpal of mine, I delete it like any other junk mail. If something is really important, write to me and tell me about it ahead of time. Don't just forward stuff to me thinking you are doing me a favor.