“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.
“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.