Getting Kids to Express Gratitude
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
Responsibilities & Values
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People used to send thank you notes. Many sat down in front of a sheet of paper and wrote out by hand how pleased they were with whatever was received and how warmly they think of the sender. They did this every time they received a gift and even when all they received was a letter of recommendation, a job interview, or a nice mention in the church newsletter. Notes like these were slid into envelopes, hand-addressed to the recipients, and mailed off with a first-class stamp. These days? Not so much!
The hand-written thank-you note may have gone the way of the Dodo, but the need to tell other people “thank you” has not gone out of style. If your children don’t know how to express thanks to folks who’ve been nice to them, or if they don’t realize that they need to express thanks to someone, then the time to teach this all-important life skill is now.
Saying “Thank You” Out Loud
We all know that “please” and “thank you” are among a toddler’s first words. By the time a child enters preschool, saying thank you should be automatic. You teach this and re-teach it by saying “please” and “thank you” yourself… and by prompting your child to say these on her own. You reinforce polite behavior with more polite behavior and you model what you want to see. Right?
But there is an art to saying thank you for a gift. A child should look directly at the giver and say “thank you” as enthusiastically as possible. There is no need to say “this is just what I wanted” but a child may say “this is the wrong color!” or “I don’t like this!” or “I hate books!”
This means that before an exciting gift-receiving event (before the start of your child’s birthday party or before a holiday present-opening), you review with your preschooler, school-age child, and older kid how to say thank you and how to see value in every gift, even the gifts of socks and underwear. Make the gift-opening event go slowly enough to pause to appreciate every single present: opening gifts should not look like a race. If a child gets so excited he forgets to be polite, that’s the time to take a break from the presents and open the rest later. No need to be angry, just stop the action and resume the gift-opening in a little while.
Sometimes the giver is not in the room. If your child is old enough to carry on a conversation on the telephone and speaks clearly enough to be understood by the person she’s calling, then thanks can be made by phone. The script goes something like this: “Thanks so much for the ____. I really like the color/model/size/whatever. I’m going to use it/play with it right away.” Short and sweet. Rehearse before dialing the phone if you need to.
Saying “Thank You” In Writing
As soon as your child hits preschool – maybe even younger – dictating thank you notes to givers who live a distance away should be part of getting a gift. These thank you notes can be on paper, of course, but a text message or email is okay too. If your child needs some help with the dictation, use the phone script as a guide. If the child can sign his name, he should do that.
Children who can write should craft their own written thank yous. Kids might need help with spelling and you might want to review what’s been read to make sure it really does express thanks. A picture the child has drawn adds nicely to this thank you note. The older the child, the more writing is needed. A note should not seem dashed off with minimal attention and should not seem like a form letter. It must be personalized and sincere.
Finally, A Word For Givers
We all want to be thanked. We’ve spent time and money making or buying and sending our gifts. We wait anxiously to see if we guessed right about what the child would like. We wait for an acknowledgement of our kindness and care. We want some love to come back our way.
So it’s natural to feel sad when thanks isn’t forthcoming. We have to decide if we feel so sad that we don’t want to risk giving again and experiencing more sadness, or if giving even without thanks gives us pleasure enough to keep on. What’s not okay is to blame the child (or even the child’s parents) for our sadness. Lay no guilt trips. Just decide what makes you most happy and do that next time.
And, by the way, thank you for reading this.