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Between researching it, buying it at the store, and wrapping it up, giving a holiday or birthday gift is no small effort. I think the time and thought put into it should be answered with some kind of grateful gesture, preferably, yes, an old-school handwritten thank-you note of yore.
And yet I am haunted by all my kids’ unwritten thank-yous. We start out with the best of intentions, carefully getting down on paper who got what as the gift wrap flies. We find some cute note cards with a not-too intimidating amount of white space to fill. We set out with a pace of knocking out three a night, which we do for a few days. But then activities, homework, and an emerging allergy to pen and paper (my kid) and an aversion to being a total nag for days on end (me) start to get the best of us. Before long we are e-mailing our thanks, but even that is hard to sustain, given the one-fingered typing speed. We peter out and before you know it, the next round of gift-giving is upon us. We never catch up.
I know I am not alone. When I think of our thank-you note fail, I comfort myself by thinking how seldom I receive them myself, despite the regular doling out of presents. (And no, I don’t think a group e-mail the next day from the parents thanking everyone for their generous gifts is the same thing.) Most people and all etiquette experts agree thank-you notes are the right thing to do, but clearly they’re so not happening in many families.
I remember hating writing thank-you notes as a kid, sometimes knocking them out December 25, just so I wouldn’t get the dreaded did-you-get-my-gift??!? note or phone call. But what do we teach kids about gratitude when it’s associated with an arduous chore that’s often more about appearances than actually being thankful?
Perhaps the key to making it happen is throwing out the idea of thank-yous as the dark side of birthdays and holidays, and instead recasting the whole idea of doing them. What if we put the emphasis on how good it feels to get a thank-you -- and tried to put the fun into doing it? We’ve got a few ideas to try to make it happen:
Talk about what it means
It’s not a chore, it’s making someone’s day! Relate the delight your kids experience in getting real mail to how it feels for your note recipient to open their mailbox.
Spark their interest
Writing an actual note may just be too foreign to today’s swipe-and-text generation. But maybe you can use that to your advantage. After all, e-anything is e-fun to many kids. Apps like RedStamp help kids and their parents make pretty digital thank-yous (but make sure your kid plays a role by coming up with the copy). JibJab can help kids create a silly, sendable thank you with their photo; just be sure to navigate the site for younger kids, since some e-cards are off-color. If your kid loves to draw, have them create a special drawing or painting, and then use color copies to make cards. Getting their creative buy-in can go a long way toward making it happen.
Brainstorm what to say
A lot of the drudgery of thank-you has to do with coming up with what to say. That’s why taking 5 minutes to brainstorm with your kid -- and maybe even jotting down some go-to phrases on a notepad for reference -- can help kids avoid mini writers block. You’ll also want to talk through what to say for a tricky note, like when a gift if a duplicate or off the mark.
Keep in mind your child’s age
If your kid’s still laboring over writing sentences for their schoolwork, writing a whole thank-you note is going to be torture. It’s perfectly fine to let them dictate to you, and then sign their name, or draw a picture to add their personal touch. You can also write out and photocopy a template, where they only need to fill in a few words.
It’s never too late
So, like me, you never quite get through your notes. If a toy your great aunt Suzy got your kid many moons ago saves you on a rainy day, it will still make her day to get a photo and an e-mail or note saying so (acknowledging the lateness of the gesture, of course.) After all, wouldn’t you love to get a note like that out of the blue?
Go no gift
If your kid just refuses to do thank-you notes -- or you just refuse to be the etiquette enforcer -- no gift parties are always an option. A long list of thank-yous afterward might also be a good reason to try to keep your next party a bit smaller.
A phone call works
Most people just want their gift acknowledged, and a quick call achieves this too. You can make the call but then put your child on the line for a bit. Especially for older relatives, having the chance to chat with your kid for a few minutes might be even better than a written thank-you anyway.