Parenting With email and text messages now the main means of contact, the days of the handwritten thank you card appear to be numbered.
Dear Denise, Thank you very much for the book. I haven't read it yet, because I have been busy with school and hockey. But I know I will enjoy it. I hope you had a merry Christmas. Oh, happy New Year! Love, Kathleen Rose PS Sorry this is late.
The cards have changed over the years. When Kathleen Rose and her brother, Matthew, were younger, their mother would pencil in lines to guide their printing. Now that they're teenagers, the handwriting has become fluid, confident script. Yes, the cards arrive a little after the fact. Sometimes months after. All the same, I still get a lift when they arrive. I save those cards. "How do you get them to do it?" I asked their mother, Karen, last year. "Pressure tactics and coercion," she said, laughing. Don't I know it. With two daughters, aged 31 and 13, I have "supervised" my share of post-holiday, post-birthday thank you notes. I have heard my share of excuses and reasons not to bother: "But why do I have to write a card? I told Aunt Mandy thank you over the phone already." I also know how important it is to teach our children to acknowledge the gifts they receive. To say thank you, not just in person or in a text message, but in words on paper. The worst sin is ingratitude - that was my father's credo. And while my brothers and sister and I would whine and pout and contrive 100 excuses as we sat at the dining room table the week after Christmas, Uncle George, Aunt Tobi, and our grandmothers on both sides did eventually receive our laboured thank you cards. Many years later, when going through a box of photographs my paternal grandmother had saved and treasured, I found a few of those cards. However, children hardly write thank you cards today, admits Jasmin Dibsi, who has been offering protocol classes for children since 2000 through Etiquette House in Abu Dhabi. (For more information, visit www.etiquette-house.com). "Their parents don't write them either for that matter," Dibsi says. "It's easier to send a text message. Or to write nothing at all." But, according to Dibsi, this is no reason why proper notes should not be written. Nor to other etiquette experts, such as Peggy Post. One website I consulted on the subject - www.mannersmatterusa.com - was also emphatic: "If the decline in thank you card rituals reflects our negligence in teaching our children the most basic of courtesies, we as a civilised society may be in serious trouble." Saying thank you may be basic good manners, but says Dibsi, it can go deeper than mere courtesy. "A written thank you is important, and not only to acknowledge the receipt of a gift. It is an invitation to communicate and connect." Having lived and worked in countries in the Middle East, Europe and North America, Dibsi has found that good manners cross cultural lines. "The base is the same," she explains. "The cornerstone is treating other people the way we want to be treated. Saying thank you to each other is so important." But times have changed, both my daughters remind me. Isn't an e-mail sufficient? After all, greeting cards can be transmitted now with a click. No effort, no stamp, and barely a thought. Maybe that's the point, because the response from etiquette experts is unanimous: a handwritten thank you is always best, especially when the gift is not opened in the giver's presence. Even if your child is too young to write, they can be part of the process. "Very young children can draw a little picture and send it along with a note attached," suggests Dibsi, who has two grown children. A child under five can also dictate a sentence or two to a parent who will get the words down on paper, then decorate the page with stickers or rubber stamps. Some parents even take a photo of the child opening the gift and send it along, especially if the giver was absent for the happy moment. One more thing: don't insist that all the cards be done at one sitting. A few at a time is more reasonable. After the age of eight or nine, children are better equipped to write their own notes. In fact, in The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children, Peggy Post says: "Letters and notes can be learning opportunities as children develop the skills of expressing their feelings and thoughts in ways that are clear and intelligible to others." But don't leave this learning experience up to your children, Dibsi advises: "Sit down and do it with them. Make it a project." She suggests assembling nice stationery, pencils, markers, and other art materials. And if there is more than one child in the family, divide up the responsibilities: "Perhaps one child can write the letter, another can address the envelope, and maybe the youngest licks the stamps." But what to say? Even adults can get a sudden attack of writers' block when it comes to thanking Aunt Petunia. The question - which would seem obvious, but isn't - is to ask our children what they would like to say. Writing a first draft is even an option that takes some of the pressure off. "Start with something about the gift," Dibsi says. "Let's say you've just received a sweater. You might write something like, 'I've been looking for this colour for a long time?'" Even gifts of money should be acknowledged specifically: "Thank you so much for the cheque. I've been saving for a camera and now I can buy it." When Dibsi mentions this last must-do, I think of the small shiver I get nearly every year when my sister-in-law writes her one-line (though dutiful) thank you cards. "Thanks for the presents" is supposed to cover it. I remember the shopping, the decisions, the wrapping, the mailing, and I feel almost worse than if she'd said nothing. (Interestingly, her two children write wonderful thank yous, filled with drawings and enthusiasm for what was given.) Of course, a thank you is a thank you. And in these days of fill-in-the-blank cards, mass-mailed e-cards and text messages, one is grateful for even a few words on paper. And especially grateful when those words come from a child. Maybe it has taken coercion, begging and bribing. As my oldest daughter, Ariel, reminded me recently when I was complaining about her now-adult cousin who never writes thank yous, "Mum, if you don't have someone breathing down your neck as a kid, you just don't develop the habit." (I was inordinately proud when Ariel sent out lovely thank you cards within a month of her recent wedding.) Which reminds me that it's now a few days after Christmas and I'd better go breathe down my younger daughter's neck. She'll drag her feet, moan and groan, but eventually those cards will get written and sent and I will feel ? well, that I did my job. When I think of it, a handwritten thank you card is such a small thing really. But it can make big things happen, can make someone feel loved and appreciated. That's something we all want our children to learn.