How Parents Can Teach Gratitude

Boy Writing a Letter

The tradition of sending thank-you notes is becoming a source of disagreement.  Most people are fine with writing a text or email, but a handwritten note is labeled "outdated" by some.  

Of course, any expression of gratitude is a good thing.  But when you receive a note of thanks in the mail, it cements the level of appreciation for the gift or act of kindness you gave to someone.  And, let's be honest, it feels really good to have this confirmation.

The necessity and correlating habit of sending a thank-you note is taught to us.  Like most traditions, a true fondness for the act comes from learning it at a young age.  When parents teach gratitude, and the art of expressing it, they continue a tradition of giving and receiving in its most sacred form.

When You Know Better, You Do Better

I confess that as a parent (well before my love for all things etiquette set in), I was not methodical in asking my children to write thank-you notes.  I don't recall exactly what I did, but I hope I did better than worse along those lines.

Recently, a person wrote to share her experience.  She said she hadn’t required her children to write thank-you notes because she felt that it had become a “should” at some point in her life and she resisted “shoulding.”  So, she confessed, her teenage children are not in the habit of writing thank-you notes.  She feels that she missed her teaching time zone, but wanted to know what I thought. 

As an etiquette educator, and not a parenting expert, I responded that it is absolutely appropriate to teach older children at home to write thank-you notes.  I don’t see what harm it would do to sit down as a family with a bunch of plain cards and catch up on saying thank you.

It's never too late to make gratitude a regular practice.  Discuss why you want to express thanks, and how good it feels when it is expressed to you.

Busy is an Excuse, Not a Reason

Everyone is busy these days.  And families with children are the most busy!

All the more reason to make a priority of acknowledging gifts.  Place a time slot on your calendar just as you would the piano lesson, the soccer practice, or the family pizza night.  You might even make it part of homework time, as writing thank-you notes is a terrific learning opportunity.

Think of when gifts are normally received - holidays and birthdays - and know that you'll need to schedule immediately after for gratitude time.  Watch how one mom enforces this in her video.

When Should You Teach Gratitude?

It's never too early to begin teaching your child how to show appreciation.  One of the first sentences most parents teach their children is "thank you."  If they can say the words, they are already learning how and when to express it.

When your children are babies or toddlers, it is appropriate that the thank-you note come from you, the parent.  As the child gets older and can hold a marker or pen, you may still write the note, but let your child add his or her own version (scribble?).

This evolves into your child writing his or her own notes, with your guidance.  Perhaps the note is dictated to you, then your child signs it.  But eventually, the entire process is completed by your child.

Teaching the process of writing the note will help make the task easier for your child.  The four elements of a thank-you note are:

  • Writing thank you.
  • Mentioning something specific about the gift.
  • Mentioning something unrelated to the gift, but related to the giver.
  • Closing with additional gratitude.

You can find more about how to write a thank-you note here.

Creativity is Encouraged!

A good friend discovered a pet peeve recently when she received what she called a "pre-fab" thank-you note.  It was similar to the party invitiations that allow you to fill in the blank with a date, time, etc.  Except in this case, the card allowed for the name of the gift recipient, what the gift was, the occasion, and then included a pre-printed thank-you expression.

While this may have been convenient for the parent, it did not convey a sincere expression of thanks.

If a traditional thank-you note isn't your or your family's style, there is no reason not to get creative.

I know a couple with two beautiful daughters who have created their own personalized thank-you notes since they were wee tots.  I have received maps to treasures, raised figures of people and animals, and even a decorated box as thank-yous.  I always feel their gratitude in those hand-crafted notes.  And I love that these parents are fostering authenticity and sincerity.

Another family creates thank-you video experiences by having their auntie hold the camera and film them reading their cards and then thanking and sharing how they feel about the gift or what they plan to do with their gift.  The video always ends with a big “I love you!” These are such treasures to me. 

What a good feeling it is for them to realize they’ve created something that will make someone else know they are appreciated.  Just as when a gift is given, an expression of gratitude is as meaningful for the giver as it is for the receiver.

When you teach gratitude to your children, you not only equip them with a life-long skill, you are teaching them to appreciate human interaction and to be good receivers. 

To quote Maura Graber, owner of the R.S.V.P.  Institute of Etiquette, “Every once in awhile, I come across an article or blog post referencing new manners or the 'new etiquette' for modern living.  In reality, the manners and etiquette needed aren’t new at all, but how we spend our daily lives is changing at such a rapid pace, the 'old etiquette' just needs a bit of tweaking to adapt.  In some cases, the 'old' etiquette still fits just fine."

To paraphrase, I would say the "old etiquette" of sending thank-you notes still fits just fine.  Who could you thank today?

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