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.
Birthdays and holidays mean presents. Presents can mean greediness, rude behavior and sibling fights over perceived inequality. Parents see the greed and fear raising selfish, inconsiderate children. We wish for altruistic children who empathize with the less fortunate and readily share with siblings and peers. When our children get into the gimmees, we get into controlling, and it’s down hill from there.
Think back to when you were a child. Did your expectations and hopes always come true? Were you let down when all the excitement and celebration was over? Did you experience disappointment? Do you now fear your child’s? Were you shamed for your feelings if you showed disappointment or anger about not getting a present you wanted? Were you given “that look” when you opened those socks from Aunt Mary? “After all you’ve gotten…!” or “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all”, or “You should be grateful, there are plenty of children who get nothing.”
If you were guilt-tripped into believing you were bad for being disappointed, you learned to stuff your feelings, began to pretend, and put on the masks that so many of us wear believing we are not good enough without them. Now you expect your children to do the same.
What you probably didn’t get as a child was acknowledgment and understanding. It’s so much more effective than barking out the traditional criticisms hoping you can scare your children’s ingratitude away. But we are too afraid of indulging negative feelings. “Oh boy, you really wished you hadn’t gotten that,” may feel like giving permission to tell Aunt Mary what you really think. Or, “You wanted that video game so badly, and you didn’t get it,” might feel like you are condoning the meltdown.
We all want to be understood for feeling what we do. Children are no exception.
When your child has a meltdown in front of grandma over a present she doesn’t want or didn’t get, calmly take her into another room, allow her tantrum and tears, and then let her know that her feelings are okay and normal. “It’s hard when it doesn’t turn out the way you want. Everyone experiences that, it’s no fun.” No need for lectures about appreciation or shaming her into feeling like a bad child. After connection has been made, she will be ready to make amends if you let her. “What would you like to say to grandma now that you’re feeling better? You can always tell me how you really feel.”
When children feel forced to be who they’re not, gratitude is in short supply. When you allow them the experience of disappointment—as real and normal a feeling as happiness—they learn to handle it in a world that will likely dole it out in chunks.
The normal developmental expectation is: A child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it. The maturing process teaches delayed gratification, but that lesson is hard-learned if he doesn’t get to experience disappointment. Validate your child’s desires and disappointments. “Of course you really want that. I would too if I were you. And I know how disappointed you feel when I tell you it’s too expensive for us.” There may be tears, but they are less likely to be angry, reactive tears.
Here are some preparatory measures:
- Never use the promise of a gift as a reward or punishment for desired behavior. Bribery always backfires.
- Encourage the mindset of giving through involvement in charity programs. Encourage children to pick out gifts for relatives.
- If your child writes a long list of wished-for gifts, remind him that his wishes are all wonderful even though he may not receive them all.
- Don’t feel guilt-tripped into giving expensive presents because you worry that you don’t spend enough time with your child, you don’t have enough money to do for them what you wish, or you have divorced. Buy what feels right and what you can afford. Then spend some extra time with each.
- Remember their agendas. They want what they want because they live in the culture in which they are being raised. Demanding appreciation for a life they have nothing to compare theirs to is confusing at best.
- Focus on moments of tradition, of unconditional love, special times of doing something together when fun and laughter and connection are abundant. This is the gift they want more than anything.
- And lastly, model the gratitude you want to see in your children. No teaching is more powerful.