In the Information Age both formalities and paper products increasingly get left by the wayside as “Hi” overtakes “Dear” for professional salutation of choice, and Paperless Post steals market share from Hallmark. Last holiday season, The Guardian’s Peter Ormerod urged parents to embrace this trend, and “bid farewell to thank you notes,” replacing them with “a phone call, a text message or a photo via Instagram or Snapchat.” After all, Ormerod reasons, “thank-you letters are really all about the parents,” and “there can be few worse ways of inculcating in your offspring an attitude of gratitude.”
Not so fast. As with most parenting tools, the constructiveness of the practice depends upon its implementation. In general, forestalling greed is all about encouraging a spirit of “enough,” distinguishing needs from desires, and prioritizing people over things. Kids taught to seek out and consume only what their bodies need to function well—rather than eating whatever is tasty whenever it’s available—have much lower rates of obesity. Similarly, children who know they can entertain themselves with very few toys will see any additions as a boon rather than a right. Kids who view a gift as a reflection of a relationship rather than merchandise are more likely to think the thought counts.
How do we get there? Shift the focus to what they already have. Start by modeling. A parent who takes her own possessions for granted is unlikely to raise grateful children. When I’m out shopping with my kiddos, I pick up something lovely, like a pair of Christian Louboutins and say: “Do I need these? They sure are pretty. But I already have two pairs of black heels. That’s enough.” Reading books such as Just Enough And Not Too Much and The Quiltmaker’s Gift can also help. Every time our kids get a present, my husband and I recite, “Open the card first to show . . .” and the kids chime in “we care more about what they thought than what they got.” Another trick involves perspective. I casually mention that some kids get no presents at all and watch the little wheels turn.
Writing thank you notes folds all of these strategies into one activity. Instead of Omerod’s mental image of a child shackled to a table until he can churn out sufficiently effusive missives, picture a kiddo with age-appropriate art materials sitting beside a parent. As mama writes her own thank you notes, junior decorates a card and places a prefab “thank you” sticker beside his drawing. They chat about the recipient of each note and how much he or she will enjoy getting it (in this way, the fact that “letters just aren’t a thing any more” makes the custom more valuable, not less).
Mom’s notes express delight at being remembered rather than at the value of specific gifts. She muses, seemingly to herself, how lucky she is to have such engaged loved ones. The letters are completed piecemeal whenever he feels like working on them, even if the task takes a month. The activity is collaborative, fun, and leaves room for free will.
With an experience that’s more demonstrative than didactic, it’s not so much “fake it ‘til you make it” as it is producing a genuine feeling of gratefulness through the process of expressing appreciation.
Gratitude aside there are child-centric reasons to continue the practice. In order to succeed, one must learn to be both respectful and dutiful. We offer Grandma the first pancake, we obey the rules of her house, and we send her thank you notes—not to appear respectful but to act respectfully. I have to take out the garbage and wipe down the toilets; my kids have to put their dirty clothes in the hamper and write thank you notes. Deference and obligation are part of a fulfilling life, at any age.
Then there’s savvy. Ormerod decries writing notes so as to beget more gifts as “a transactional approach . . . to human relationships.” When my son recently planned to send one to the principal of his big sister’s school, I asked, “Why? He didn’t get you anything.” My three year-old responded, “That’s why I’m going to put Mr. Slater on my thank you note list: so that he knows I’m grateful, and next year he’ll get me something.” It wasn’t exactly a shining moment for “enough,” but I appreciated the thinking nonetheless. Thankful or not, that boy is going places.
Don’t say goodbye to thank you notes; say hello to grateful, respectful, dutiful, and/or savvy children.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and writes about parenthood. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she’s a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, DC, Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.