Thank You Notes: More Than Just a Thank You

This one is dedicated to Betty Wheeler, my mother-in-law and, I believe, a connisseur of Thank You's.

I have a childhood memory to share with you...

It's December 28th, 1979. I am nine years old, living in Sandpoint, Idaho, waaay out in the toolies. Our property is like a winter wonderland outside: there is bright, glistening snow everywhere. We lived out on seven acres, our ranch house and stockade fence near the winding rural road and behind the house, a pasture, an abandoned old stable, and five acres of forest. We'd cut down our own Christmas tree that year, with my stepfather's Homelite chainsaw leaving fresh sawdust at the site. Our land has a small spring where deer come to drink, a burned out stump which reminded me of Pa's Bear Stump in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods", and endless trees. We'd decorated the conifer in the backyard with carrots and other nibbles for the deer and birds. I'm just grabbing up my snow pants to head outdoors when my mother's voice grabs me by the collar and stops me in my tracks:

"No one goes outside until your thank-you notes are finished."

Ooops. I'd had two whole days to play with the new toys, most of which I still remember: a sewing kit I would use for years, a fashion design center (which would get thrown over for the less imaginative Fashion Plates toy we'd get next year), a Newberry's 'Barbie' type doll and Tinkertoys. I remember these because I did sit down and write those thank you notes. I also remember my grandparents always giving us a box of stationary each year, perhaps not directly for such a purpose, but it was always made clear: if someone is considerate, kind and thoughtful enough to take the time to buy you a present, wrap it and send it, a thank you note was necessary.

For years, of course, my young self would have considered it more of a necessary evil perpetrated on my poor self by my mean mom. I was a kid, right? Kid deserved toys, or so I thought. I mean, we always got something each year from the Grandparents on each side, the home parents, the 'other parent' (those previous spouses who didn't get Christmas with the kids) and Santa. We also received clothes, which in hindsight, was a really great gift because they were needed and as we got older, more appreciated. When we moved to less-attractive homes in later years, sometimes playing outside wasn't so enticing, and then it was "If you don't write a thank you note to your Grandmother, we can put her presents up until you do". Parents can become a threat factory, manufacturing punitive motivations like snowflakes: they can be copious, and similar and no two will be exactly alike. We grumbled, but we wrote...

As a young adult, I fell off the Thank You wagon. Perhaps it was the teen years, when mom just decided not to press it anymore--we had bigger things to fight over. But older and wiser now, I'm of the solid belief that Thank You notes are one of the best tools we have, not only in fighting the growing sense of unjustified entitlement in kids, but also in helping our children grow their relationships with others. Think of it as a double lesson, both in gratitude and social skills.

It was my (at the time, future) Mother-in-Law who first corrected my impression of thank you notes. I'd sent one to her that I'd made by hand-- and she sent one back to me, telling me how much she'd appreciated my words and the time I'd taken to make the card. That felt good. It made me think that it would be fun to do this more often, and so I started up sending a note now and then, sometimes to a friend for inviting us to a lovely dinner, sometimes I'd send one to Joe's work, just telling him how much I appreciated him. It began to change my perspective, a bit at a time. Writing thank you notes and taking time to think of these little blessings in life given to me by others made me feel the truth of these moments: it wasn't anything to do with my deserving something, it was about the kindness and generosity and consideration that others had taken on my behalf. I believe that these notes helped to strengthen new relationships as well as to keep the warmth and care in my more established ones; to show older friends and loved ones that I was not going to take them for granted. Over the years, these notes have become just a part of who I am now, they are easily written and come from the heart. Sometimes it's an email of appreciation, just because that person is so wonderful for who they always are, and sometimes it's a nicer, more formal card, which the older relatives love and the younger people need to see. They need this modeled for them, and as a teacher, part of my philosophy is that teaching kids how good it feels to receive a Thank You can be a more compelling argument than just making kids write them. (I know, sneaky me, taking the empathetic angle like that.)

These days, Kiddo and I are working our way through our post-holiday Thank You's. Some would say that younger kids can't 'do' Thank You's. I beg to differ. When children are young, we can ask them to 'make a picture' (however they like) for Auntie or Grandma to say thanks for their gifts. Reminding our kids that "Auntie and Uncle sent you the puzzle. Let's make a picture to say thanks" is all they really need. We can write a short message afterward and read it aloud to the child. At four years old, Kiddo dictates the text, which usually goes along the lines of "Dear So and So, I love you. Thank you for...." and then I ask him to tell me one thing he likes about each gift. This is the message, he makes the picture, and gets to put the letter or card in an envelope, seal it and affix the stamp. I sit at the table, too, and write out my Thank You's on cards, so that he sees me doing this as well. Like recycling and composting, the thank you notes are becoming part of our family's spiritual practice. Much in the way that recycling and composting are about being good stewards of the Earth, these notes help us become good stewards of our relationships with others and teach us to consider their feelings before our own convenience.

I don't deny that some days, especially around the holidays, Kiddo can sound like he's a member of that famous kid's band,  I Want and the Gimme Gimmes. That's par for the course with kids and young people. I won't deny that it's been a latter-day revelation to me that the concept of deserving has no true part in much of life. (This is a more egalitarian view than is often popular.) We live in a culture that is entirely too obsessed with what we supposedly 'deserve', which is one part of the reason our country is in the economic mess we are in. Many people felt they deserved a lot and  got greedy with all that deserving, and what we think we deserve often comes on the backs of others, making their lives less than humane and less than what they truly deserve so that we can have more. Not everyone lives this way, but enough people do to the point that it's thrown things significantly off-kilter. When I hear that a discreet homeless-persons camp in downtown Portland is an eyesore because shoppers deserve not to be upset and confronted by poverty, I know that things are terribly skewed. I'm not saying that a thank you note is going to change the world, but if we can help our kids--and our own selves--direct our attention to what we've got, and how it isn't about our inherent awesomeness, but about the kindness and thoughtfulness of another person, it's a start in the right direction.

Fortunately, too, I've got some better tricks up my sleeve than my mother had: I don't have to threaten grounding or no toys to make my son write thank you notes; I choose to do it with him and to make it a fun, bonding time. Cups of something yummy and warm to drink, crayons and markers and stickers, cards and paper and the love, the talking, the enjoyment of each gift as we write about them~ here, at the table, we create something transient, to be mailed off, and yet something very real, which are the memories of good times together in gratitude.

You can give your child this memory gift too....


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