Four Criteria for Thank-You Notes (or why Lena isn’t done yet)

IMG_6945“You’re not going to like this,” says Lena, handing me a thank-you note fresh from the printer. It is 7 already; bedtime is 8. This is the final task standing between her and TV.

I read it. “You’re right,” I say. She waits. I tell her what to do.

“That’s it?”


“OK,” she says, and heads back to the computer.

That, my friends—that remarkable exhibition of obedience—is the Principle of Parental Certitude at work. When faced with their parents’ absolute certainty, children (at least young children) tend to obey. Whatever rules you consider non-negotiable, your children will not try to negotiate.

In practice, of course, almost everything is negotiable. You’re a reasonable person. You’re willing to let piano practice go for the day, wait till tomorrow for the room to be cleaned, accept sub-standard levels of personal hygiene. Or if you’re not, your co-parent is. In our case, once we remove every topic on which either of us is at all ambivalent, we’re left with . . . kids who eat their vegetables, make eye contact with adults, and write thank-you notes.

The thank-you note imperative comes from my side of the family. If a high regard for manners and a deep respect for the written word married and had a baby, it would be me—I mean, a thank-you note. I’m not obsessed with the details. It doesn’t have to be handwritten in black or blue-black ink. It doesn’t have to be perfectly spelled or punctuated. It doesn’t have to be perfectly serious. But it does have to meet certain criteria.

(1) It must be written.

On actual paper. Which my children then put in an envelope, on which they painstakingly write the address. They thanked the person in person or on the phone? I don’t care. They’re not sure it was really a present? I don’t care. Texting is easier? I don’t care. The gift-giver went to some trouble; my children will acknowledge that by going to some trouble themselves.

 (2) It must be written by a human.

“Thank you for the ___________! I love it. I’m glad you could come to my party” could come from a robot. Not even an empathetic, Wall-E type robot; more like the kind that assembles cars. And yet that’s the sort of thank-you note that children turn out all the time. I am sympathetic, believe me: it’s surprisingly difficult to write in a human voice. So I instruct my kids to begin a thank-you note with anything but “Thank you for the . . .” If they force themselves to start in some other way—any other way—then the rest of their letter is less likely to fall down the thank-you note production chute.

(I used to insist on the different-first-line rule, until presented with a note that bore the following first line: “Mom says I can’t start this letter with the words ‘thank you.’” Outsmarted, I relented. Still, my children almost never start with “thank you” because they know it boxes them in.)

(3) It must be written to a human.

That means my kids have to acknowledge not just the gift—the particular gift—but the particular person. Children who write “Thank you for the present” become the new parents who send out a form email with a photo of Baby Trixie and a sentence thanking us (and presumably many others just like us) for our “generous gift.” Um . . . you’re welcome?

The subtext of the thank-you note is recognizing another human being: I see your generosity. I see what you mean to me. I see you. (All forms of ritual correspondence do this: a condolence letter says, I see your pain.) A form letter does the opposite: it makes the gift-giver feel invisible, unseen.

I would prefer not to receive a thank-you note than to receive this kind. At least then I could think badly of the (spoiled, heedless, or irresponsible) person rather than of my (unimportant, unnoticed, or unloved) self.

(4) It must express gratitude.

Many thank-you notes fail this most obvious requirement because they don’t meet criteria 1, 2, or 3. It can be hard to find the gratitude in a hastily written, rote, or generalized sentiment. But it is possible to meet the first three criteria and still fail to meet the last. Lena, for example, was so intent on chatting about the present in question that she forgot to write a sentence expressing thanks for it. Sometimes, too, my children kind of write around the gift itself because they didn’t really want it. These letters are still sweet and friendly, but there’s something missing: true gratitude. To write true gratitude—gratitude that can be felt by the reader—you have to feel true gratitude, if only for the ten minutes you are writing.

This exercise is important exactly to the extent that it is difficult. My kids are spoiled, materially speaking. They have and continue to receive far, far more than they need. In the midst of all this luck and luxury, they must take a moment to contemplate their good fortune and those responsible for it.

Not “they should” or “they would do well to” . . . they must. And so Lena does, without arguing, tonight, before TV. She can clean her room tomorrow.


  1. Nice one, Kate. I like the Principle of Parental Certitude, as well as the insistence on gratitude. Uh, how about contributing an acceptable sample thank you? Some of us could use a template.

    1. Well, Hope, templates make me nervous (see Criterion 2). But I here append a list of first lines thanking a fictional Aunt Phyllis for a pair of bright blue socks. If you can be grateful for socks, you’re on the right track.

      Dear Aunt Phyllis,
      1. I am sitting here with very warm toes, thanks to you . . .
      2. That is the coolest color I have ever seen. Can I wear these outside my shoes instead of inside? . . .
      3. It was such a great surprise to see you pull up at my party on Saturday, and then to have you bring a lovely present too . . .
      4. There’s just one problem with those awesome socks: my little sister keeps trying to steal them . . .
      5. How did you know I needed socks?
      6. We have to wear those horrible uniforms in school, but now, thanks to you, I get to wear a little something cheerful too. . .
      7. Leave it to you to give me something both practical and silly. I love them! . . .
      8. I was hoping there would be socks in that package—I’ve worn through the last pair you gave me . . .
      9. These socks are fantastic! . . .
      10. Warm and cozy and bright—these socks remind me of visiting your house in the winter . . .

  2. “Dear Kate, Your latest essay arrived in my Facebook feed today and reminded me of all the times I was a bad parent. But you have given me new hope and concrete goals for the future. Thank you for giving me this guide to Thank You Notes and gratitude in general. – Love, Matt”

    Would that work as a Thank You Note?

    1. Yes, Matt, that would work. And for the record, I did not intend to make anyone feel bad. Maybe inspire them to take this little corner of correspondence seriously–just as someone could write an essay that would inspire me to cut my kids off from South Park or candy. It’s hard to be good in every way, isn’t it?

  3. We got married many years ago, when I was young and still trying to do everything right! We received many gifts by mail, and one box contained a set of four Waterford wine glasses, two of them shattered in shipping. I contacted the store and they offered to replace the broken glasses at no cost, and as I didn’t want to upset the kind gift-giver nor be dishonest, my thank you note read, in part, “Thank you for the beautiful Waterford pieces.”

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