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Why I Make My Son Write Thank You Notes

thank you notesWriting thank you notes sucks. It’s a chore on par with unloading the dishwasher and cleaning out the lint filter in the dryer.  

But getting gifts doesn’t suck. Few things are more exciting than ripping open wrapping paper or breaking my nails ungluing the flaps of an Amazon box that I didn’t order for myself. Yup, receiving gifts is the best.

I think it’s important to acknowledge when someone does something nice, like buying me a coffee or having our family over for dinner. To show my appreciation, I usually send a text or email expressing my gratitude. But when someone brings me a present (gift-wrapped optional), I find there is only one method of thanking them that suffices: a good old-fashioned thank you note.   

It’s old school, I know. But old nagging dies hard. My mother was a staunch believer in prompt, well-written thank you notes on cute, usually personalized stationery. My birthday party guests were barely out the door when the hounding began.

“You should start writing your thank you notes,” she would tell me, and my life would go on hold until I handed a stack to her. To be fair, I was an excellent procrastinator, so she knew what she was up against. So no, I couldn’t go out and ride my bike until my thank you notes were done. No, I couldn’t watch Love Boat or dive into my Sweet Valley Highs until I wrote five more. I would whine, “Why do I have to write these stupid thank you notes?” 

“Because it’s polite,” she would retort. “And because I said so,” she would add, which meant the conversation was over. I swore I would never subject my own child to this unnecessary, laborious task. 

But like so many other promises I made as a child on behalf of my own future child, I saw things differently once I became a mom. When his birthdays come and go, I make my son write thank you notes, on similarly adorable, personalized stationery. I hear the same griping and whining to which I subjected my own mother. But I stand firm: writing thank you notes is the polite thing to do when someone has given you a present. 

But recently, I realized that writing thank you notes has benefits beyond mere manners.  

In the past few months, my son has been on the receiving end of many kindnesses. People have sent him toys, books, games, puzzles, water crackers (long story), tickets to events and lots of other treats to occupy him while he undergoes treatment for a serious blood disorder. It crossed my mind to let it go, to allow the thank you notes to remain unwritten. Why put my son through what would be certain torture for a kid who hates writing to begin with? People would understand, I reasoned to myself. They would tell me not to bother, that my son has enough to deal with already.

But I can’t let it go for a number of reasons. One, I feel compelled to acknowledge thoughtfulness, to show that I am grateful and that I don’t take it for granted. Furthermore, I recently read an article in the New York Times that stated that “after receiving thank-you notes and filling out questionnaires about how it felt to get them, [the givers] said they were “ecstatic,” scoring [their] happiness rating at 4 of 5 [out of 5]. ” (NY Times July 2018). This reinforces my own ingrained feeling that someone who has done something nice should feel good about it. 

But this summer, I have come to realize that my insistence on my son writing thank-you notes is only marginally about the giver: it’s much more about how I want my son to gain a true understanding of gratitude, especially during a time when it might feel challenging to feel grateful. No sleep-away camp, no roller coasters, and spending every third or fourth day in the hospital could make it easy to fall into a self-pity cycle.

Having my son write thank you notes puts the emphasis on the many ways we are fortunate: not just because of the gifts people give him but the fact that people care relentlessly about him and our family. It encourages him to remember and think about and respond to kindness explicitly, in two to three well-crafted sentences. 

I am hoping it nurtures in him not only an understanding of gratitude, but a positive outlook on life in general. The glass is either half-empty or half-full. Writing thank you notes helps him to see it as the latter. And for his English teacher mom, the writing practice is an added bonus. 

Thank you for reading.

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