I recently came across this article about writing thank-you notes. The author’s opinion on parents “forcing” their children to write thank-you notes is summed up in these sentences: “…our young are learning that writing thank-you letters has nothing to do with actually thanking anyone. They represent arguably the first instance in our lives when insincerity is officially sanctioned, which is particularly sad given that the best thing about children is their honesty.” His final suggestion is, “Just don’t force your children to write thank-you letters.”
And you know what? I agree with him. Don’t force your children to write thank-you letters. Instead, teach them to write thank-you letters.
What’s the difference? In a word, “graciousness.”
Anyone who has ever received a gift has probably also received an unwanted, inappropriate, thoughtless, or flat-out bad gift. But a “bad” gift given in the proper spirit is just as deserving of sincere thanks as a “good” one is. (Gifts given NOT in the proper spirit are an entirely different ball of wax, but that’s another blog for another day.) Aunt Matilda may have sent you yet another badly-knit, hideously-misshapen sweater in the ugliest color combination known to man, but she spent time making something specifically for you. Great-grandmother’s gift of a jerky sampler may be difficult for a recent vegan convert to appreciate, but it’s still possible to express sincere appreciation for being thought of. A ten-year-old receiving a toy meant for a six-year-old can be taught to sincerely thank the giver for his or her generosity – and then learn to show generosity by donating that toy to a homeless shelter or a young friend.
I can easily sit down with my five-year-old and coach him on how to write a gracious thank-you note. I can tell him the words to write (or say) when a gift wasn’t quite what he hoped for. But they best way to teach my children how to accept gifts of any kind graciously is to model it myself. My kids are much more likely to remember what I said when I thanked someone for a gift than they are to remember what I suggested they say when they thanked someone. And if we figure out together what part of a particular gift makes it special (Aunt Matilda spending hours thinking of you as she knitted, Great-grandmother’s way of showing her love by feeding people, an older friend’s fond memories of you as a young child), children can learn that a gift symbolizes so much more than the actual item received.
My family has a saying: “Long walk part of gift.” It comes from a story (originally published in Guideposts magazine) about a missionary teacher in a land-locked African country whose young student gave her a beautiful seashell as a gift. She asked where it had come from and he explained that he had walked many miles to the sea to collect it for her. When she expressed her astonishment that he would do such a thing, he informed her, “Long walk part of gift.”
Regardless of whether or not you can sincerely thank the giver for the gift itself, you can always thank them sincerely for the long walk.