Recently I made a shopping excursion to a hardware store. Sitting at a table near the entrance were two young boys of 10 or 11 selling candy bars for a dollar apiece. I asked what group they represented, and one of them rather sullenly answered, “Boy Scouts.”
At that point I took a dollar bill out of my billfold and handed it to one of the boys, while my husband picked up his chosen candy. The boy put the bill in his cash box and said nothing. Ever the teacher (and moralist, I suppose), I asked, “Aren’t you supposed to say ’thank you’ to me?” At that point, a muttered and barely audible “thank you” emerged from one of the boys.
Many adults are bothered by the seeming disappearance from children of simple manners, in particular their failure to show their appreciation of generosity from family and friends. Maybe we don’t start early enough in helping to ingrain the feeling of gratitude and the habit of showing it. It is during the preschool years that we need to begin the training.
This immediate post-holiday season, with its proliferation of gifts to the fortunate children in many families, is a good time to think about ways to encourage the development of the habit of expressing appreciation and acknowledging gifts.
The acknowledgements needn’t be elaborate, but, if at all possible, they should be written at whatever level of sophistication the child can manage. A special phone call to a generous grandparent will perhaps do, but something put on paper and sent through the mail will do a lot better. Once a child can print, and even before she can spell, you can print out T H A N K Y O U G R A N D M A on a tablet and let her copy it. Then ask her to dictate a short message, and you can write that in quotes on the other side of the card. Even better, ask her to draw a picture to send with the card. Then, if she can print her own name, have her do so on the Return Address section of the envelope. If she does this, I guarantee that you will get a special call from a completely dazzled grandmother—and a guaranteed magnetized position of honor for the card on the side of a refrigerator. Can you not hear her proud remarks, as she shows it to neighbors, “My granddaughter sent this to me.” This procedure works beautifully with children in the 5- to 7-year age range.
But before your child can print or write, a picture, for which you might write a caption, will do just as well. If the gift was a special toy, encourage him to draw a picture of himself playing with the toy. (Although in ordinary art work you don’t want to ask, “What’s this,” for the present purpose you might generate some discussion and then perhaps quote his remarks in small captions: “Here I am playing with my farm set.” “This is me in the shirt you sent me.”) Try this with children in the 4- to 5-year range.
Even younger children can participate in this kind of activity. A 2-year-old can make a hand print in finger paint and then allow you to print a short message around it. And a 3-year-old can dictate a message and decorate the card with some sort of scribbling or drawing.
Work for the Parent
Instilling this habit requires work on the part of the parent. But it’s worth eliminating some other activity with your child in order to find time to do it. If necessary, give up a bedtime story one night and work on the necessary notes. This joint preparation of a written thank-you is, for both parent and child, quality time. And, to reinforce the habit, demonstrate that you do the same thing. While she draws her picture, you can write your thank-you note and put it in the same envelope. Involve your child in the remainder of the process in so far as possible—putting a stamp on the envelope, dropping it in a mail box, etc.
This may seem overly formal and “fancy” to you. You may say, “My mother, and my husband’s mother, certainly don’t expect thank-you notes from my kids.” Are you 100% sure about that? Just try it and see what kind of response you get. I know of no habit that goes further in convincing people that we are considerate and appreciative of generosity and helpfulness than “thank yous” put into writing. Helping your children develop that habit by starting when they are young will aid them in cementing good extended family relationships and establishing and keeping friends.
Who knows? If you get this year’s Christmas and Hanukah and Kwanzaa gifts formally thanked, when birthday time comes around your child might actually say, “Come on, Mom. Let’s get our thank-you notes written.”
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.