These tips are adapted from The Art of the Handwritten Note, by Margaret Shepherd, from Broadway Books/Random House.
“I’m going to stop sending presents.” “It’s like dropping money into a black hole.” “What happened to gratitude-or manners?” “What’s wrong with this generation?” I hear this kind of complaint a lot from grandparents who send a child a gift and never hear back. It’s a common situation with an easy solution. All you need to fix it is to choose from a list of twelve little techniques to change the child’s behavior and accept one big idea to change your own attitude (see #6). I’ve been that child, and I’ve been that parent.
12 ways to help you help your child write thank-you notes.
1. Start a holiday tradition. Children do better when they know what is expected of them. An annual gift of stationery will set the stage. Focus your holiday on promoting your family’s generosity and gratitude.
2. Schedule. Set aside a specific chunk of time, the sooner the better. The quiet day after Christmas day is often available.
3. Clerical support. Make sure the child has all the materials she needs and a place to work. That includes stationery, pens, return address stickers, stamps, and addresses.
4. Sugar coating. Add little extras to make it more fun, such as stickers, glitter, pretty envelopes, and interesting stamps.
5. Training wheels. Help them over the hard parts by supplying phrasing, steno service, models for capital letters. Some people like to help a very small child by taking dictation, or an older one by suggesting phrases. I recommend the 3-sentence structure; name the gift, mention the occasion, and express gratitude for the thought. Whatever gets ink on the page and into the mail.
6. Aspiration. Letter writing has the sophistication of grown-up behavior. Set a good example by portraying thank-you notes as something you like to do-you can’t expect the child to be eager to write notes if you bad-mouth them as a chore.
7. Companionship. Sit down and write while the child writes.
8. Reward. Some parents like to set up a reward for completing the job such as earning an television time, adjusted bedtime, or other treat.
9. Deadline/downside. Include some negative reinforcement. For instance, you can declare that she cannot play with a toy till it’s thanked for. Other privileges can be tied to saying thank-you, but should not trivialize the wonderful glow that comes simply from having expressed gratitude.
10. Imaging. Help the child remember the person with pictures, and remind her why the gift gave her pleasure by keeping it in sight. What if she did not like it? Help her imagine the letter on its way to the recipient. And make sure that person reinforces the child’s good behavior.
11. Reciprocity. Help the child understand why a handwritten note is worth the trouble by sending her one yourself. Most children today do not receive letters in the mail, making this an unfamiliar experience. You can’t expect a child to picture someone else’s pleasure on receiving a handwritten note if she’s never gotten one herself.
12. Work behind the scenes. Reassure the grandparent or other gift-giver that the gift arrived, the child liked it, and the thank-you note will get written. Try to keep the giver from putting the child on the defensive while the child masters the task.
These strategies also work for adults, helping the bride or groom, birthday celebrator, and recent graduate to do the right thing. A handwritten note is still the gold standard for saying “thank you.”