I Will Always Make My Kids Write A Thank You Note

I am raising my kids to believe they are a non-negotiable part of being a polite and gracious person.

by Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken
A young kid writing thank you notes
Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images

I don’t die on a lot of hills when it comes to parenting. I’m huffing and puffing my own way up this steep incline, and when I see others taking a different route than me, I'd rather we just all salute one another in passing and keep moving forward. This gig isn't easy, and whenever possible, I try to withhold judgment about the way other people raise their kids.

But we all have our preferences and proclamations, and here is one of mine: I fervently and unapologetically believe in the thank you note. If you do something nice for me, you're going to receive one. And I am raising my kids to believe they are a non-negotiable part of being a polite and gracious person.

I can feel the hackles of hundreds of readers rising as I write this. Sometime in the last half-century, the idea that a handwritten, thoughtful thank you note was just baseline decent etiquette began to fall away. They are a less and less observed social custom, and I think we are all the poorer for it.

Growing up as an only child in the ’80s and ’90s, I was also the only grandchild on both sides of the family for a substantial amount of time. I was surrounded by many doting relatives, who loved to go all out for special occasions and buy me lovely presents. My own parents — reacting no doubt to the “selfish, spoiled only child” stereotype — were sticklers for the thank you note. I’d sit down at the kitchen table after birthdays and Christmases and work my way through the list of friends and family members who had given me something.

Did I always love doing it? Of course not. I was a kid and wanted to get down to the business of playing with whatever Barbie or sticker book had necessitated this ritual. Am I glad my parents made me do it? I am more glad than I can say. Maybe I’ll send them a thank you note about it.

There is a direct, well-proven correlation between gratitude and happiness.

And I think there's a compelling line to be drawn between being raised to pause in gratitude and taught to take the time to express it and growing up to be the kind of person who can appreciate the unselfish kindnesses other people bestow upon them. I notice nice things all the time: the stranger who holds the door for me, the teacher who goes the extra mile for my son, the friend who brought the pretty tulips to my dinner party. I cling to that thankful part of my mindset, especially when life gets hard. I think some of that outlook on life comes from being raised with an emphasis on gratitude.

My husband and I knew we would have a strict thank you note policy with our kids, and we’ve developed some hacks that work well for us when it comes to enforcing it. In our family, if someone buys you a birthday present, whether they were there for the opening of the gift or not, they get a thank you note. At Christmas, when everyone is receiving gifts, you send a thank you note to anyone who gave a gift but didn't get to see you open it. An out-of-the-blue gift or gesture is thank-you-note-worthy every single time.

When our children were babies, my husband and I wrote the thank you notes. When the kids were little — too small to actually write sentences — we would ask them to draw a picture for the gift giver, and we’d write the note for them. Now that they are older, we buy them interesting stationery and get the cool animal or cartoon stamps from the post office, so it feels creative and fun. They have been taught this practice from the beginning of their lives, and they never fight us on it. They know it's just what we do when someone does something nice for us.

After a big event, like a birthday or holiday, when the kids might have received multiple presents from relatives, I keep an ongoing list on the fridge as packages arrive so we know who got them what and can be sure no one is missed when it comes time to sit down and write out their gratitude. Perhaps as a consequence of this mandatory family policy, our seven-year-old really enjoys writing to long distance relatives, and often just hands me a card or note he’d like me to mail.

Yes, writing thank you notes is time-consuming. Yes, if your kids are small, it makes more work for you, helping them spell names and tracking down addresses. Yes, we are all very busy. But when did we decide that other people’s generosity wasn't worth a little of our time?

I just don’t see the downside. In writing a thank you note, my kids practice their writing skills and penmanship. They spend some time reflecting on a present or gesture that made them happy. They make the day of a person who was generous to them.

I worry that skipping this step of expressing gratitude, and teaching kids to accept gifts or gestures without acknowledgment, is a slippery slope to an attitude of entitlement. I don’t like to be around people like that. I don’t want that for my kids.

Some people are content with a texted thank you, or sending a photo of their kid enjoying a present. Some people might feel saying thank you in person or over the phone is completely sufficient. Those gestures don't quite cut it for me.

In our family, we’ll keep sending old-fashioned thank you notes, expediently, whenever the occasion calls for it. It's a habit I hope my children take into their own adulthood, that will affect their viewpoint on the world, and remind them that kindness is always worth noticing, and gratitude is always worth the effort.

Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken is a writer based in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the award-winning magazine The Beekman 1802 Almanac, Mini City Magazine and Jennifer has also been featured on Design Mom and Cup of Jo. She is happiest when with her family, watching British television, hunting for vintage treasures, or fastidiously organizing any mess.