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Home Family Parenting Advice The Competent Parent: The Thank You Note

The Competent Parent: The Thank You Note

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

The Thank You Note

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son just turned 7 and we’re behind on thank you notes for Christmas and now birthday presents. What’s the best way to instill this habit of expressing appreciation in a personalized note?

Social Grace

Dear Social Grace,

How refreshing! Yes, this is indeed a habit best formed with the help of an attentive parent committed to shaping your child’s attitudes and practices regarding others’ generosity.

Too often I hear about and witness a sense of entitlement in children (and many parents!) such that the lack of a gift, or a disappointing gift, evokes more reaction than the well-chosen gift. The child assumes that grandparents, etc. are SUPPOSED to give presents and therefore need not be thanked.

The best way to instill a habit is to make time for shaping the new behavior into habitual practice. Plan how you will lay out the rationale, gain his “buy in” (even with a short-term reward to look forward to), and support him as needed through the learning process until he “owns” the new behavior.

In simplest terms, when someone gives you a gift, they want to please you – to make you smile. When they find out you were pleased (upon reading the note), they will be pleased, and smile, too. It’s like the smile came back.

It’s tough to instill “manners” in children under the age of seven, other than through their desire to imitate. So if you have shown him lots of appreciation, and have been diligent about writing notes to others on his behalf, perhaps including a smiling photo of him and the gift – the modeling effect has already begun. He may also be inspired to write good thank you’s from a “selfish” point of view – gift givers will more likely keep giving gifts if they know they are appreciated. But don’t leave this as the only reason to do it.

Your child is gradually becoming less ego-centric, and certainly by age four, he feels bad if he lets down someone he cares about. So at first, this habit has to come more from you than from him. It helps if along the way to social sensitivity, you point out behaviors that one person does which please another person. You are teaching appreciation each time you help him thoughtfully make or pick out a gift, and both enjoy the pleased reaction when the recipient opens it.

After careful consideration of why he would benefit from learning the habit of the Thank You note, and when, where, and what tools, etc. will assure success, you share the plan with him. Your seven-year-old will need more support at first, as he learns this practice, and perhaps some reminders if he starts to slip later on – especially in adolescence (lots of what had been learned gets “unlearned” for a time).

You might decide to knock it all out at once in one uninterrupted block of time. Have him gather up the gifts, or make a list (with your help as needed). Both of you may realize this is easiest to do as the gifts arrive, but that’s okay. Hold that thought for next year. At seven, he’ll need as much help with how to address an envelope as with how to compose (and spell) the contents of the note.

Alternatively, a one-at-a-time approach might be a better way to start. After twenty minutes on one note, he’s ready to go off and play. Set an overall goal to be caught up and finished by a reasonable date – say three weeks from receipt – then schedule your work sessions, and look forward to a satisfying activity to celebrate completion. This could be finally using the one spectacular present in the bunch.

Basic contents of a Thank You note:

Salutation – “Dear Grampy,”

Enthusiastic/ heartfelt/ amazed / gratifying expression of appreciation for specific gift –Ask your child – why are you glad to have this present? Why did it make you smile? “The glow-in-the-dark stars you gave me make by bedroom look like outer space! Every time I turn out the lights it makes me and Dad say, ‘Wow!'”

Closing– (If you haven’t used the words “thanks,” “thank you,” or “appreciate” you can sign off with – “Thanks so much for this great present. Love (if appropriate, otherwise, “Sincerely,”), Joey.” Otherwise, it’s all right to be repetitive with the main message, “Thanks again,” which just adds more smiles to the message.

A sign of maturity, which you can work toward, is to express appreciation even when the gift totally misses the mark with the recipient. You can help your child with this advanced social grace, too. Help him find an answer to why he’s glad Great Aunt Sue’s widower (who last saw him at age two) remembered his birthday (even though the gift was more appropriate for a preschooler). It may be more about the relationship he treasures than about the gift. After some discussion the two of you might come up with: “Your present reminds Mom and me how much fun we had singing songs with you and Great Aunt Sue, and watching the stars come out at night at your beach house.” Or “I wear my new rocket ship socks to keep my feet warm at night. I tell my friends all the time I have a great uncle who helped NASA put astronauts on the moon. Thanks for remembering my birthday.”

And thank you for writing! Questions from readers help me help other readers!

With appreciation,

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com



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