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Q: When's the right age to expect a child to say "thank you" for gifts?
A: I'll answer without referring to any etiquette books. And I'll start with a confession - I did an awful job writing thank you letters as a child. (Notes to my grandmother were stiff, awkward, and limited - along the lines of "Dear Nana, Thank you for the present. I am fine. How are you? Love, Jeannie") I wrote these notes as a "duty," and my parents never gave me a clue how to write any other kind of thank you note.
Fast forward many decades.
I appreciate your question, "What's the right age to expect a child to say 'thank you" for gifts?" My answer - as young as possible!
Of course, you need to show your child how to say "thank you." I know (from many years of working with very young children) that even two-year-olds can show appreciation and say thank you, in an age-appropriate way. And as children get older, their ability to say "thank you" certainly grows. For a bunch of ideas, please see the next few Q and A's.
Q: I've got two pre-school children. One's more verbal than the other. My husband and I want them to have good manners and say thanks when they're given presents. How do we get them to do this?
A: First step, you can talk to your children and model appreciation and how to say thanks. For instance, "Grandma gave you this special book. That was so nice of Grandma. Let's look at this book . . . Oh, what a special book from Grandma. I like it! I like the pictures! I like the words! I like the story! I want to tell her thank you! Let's both tell her thank you!"
Here are two ways that two-year-olds and three-year-olds can then help to say "thank you."
If Grandma is coming over for a visit later that day or the next day, you can tell your young children, "When we see Grandma, we can show her the special book. And we can show her we like the book she gave you." When Grandma comes over, your youngest child can hold the book, look at the book, show Grandma a "happy face" and say "thanks" (or "danks"). Perhaps your three-year-old can show Grandma the book, tell Grandma "Thanks! I like this book!" and even show Grandma which pictures he or she likes.
If Grandma is at a distance (or won't be visiting in the very-near-future), you can tell your children that you are going to call Grandma and say thank you - and tell your children that they can help say "thanks." Then call Grandma, with your children nearby so they can hear all of your words. Tell Grandma that your children like the book, that you and your children have already read it (or looked at it) two or three times, and it's a really good present. Then give each of your children the phone and ask each child to say "Hi Grandma" and "thanks" - or "Hi Grandma" and "Thanks for the book! I like it."
By the way, if one of your children is more verbal, have that child say thanks first. This gives your younger (or less verbal) child an additional chance to hear and see how to say "thanks."
Helping your very young children say a few words of thanks only takes a few moments, but it begins to teach them to feel and show appreciation with words.
Q: Should children write thank you notes?
A: Yes. Even very young children can say thank you by "helping" to write a thank you note - even if they don't know how to write words, even if they don't know how to write any of the letters of the alphabet.
Let's say that a family friend, Sue, gives one of your children a book on his or her birthday. Your child is only two-years-old (or three-years-old). You can say to your child something like, "I see your new book that Sue gave you. That was so nice of Sue to give you this book. Let's show Sue how you like this book. You can sit and read the book, and I'll take a photo of you . . . Let's send Sue the photo of you reading the book and we'll write 'THANKS'."
Your child can actually help you with this kind of thank you note - and understand what's happening (and why) because you have first talked to your child. So now your child is ready to participate and help.
Your child can get the gift book and sit down with it. Your child can then look at the book while you take the photo. And if you print the photo (rather than e-mailing it), your child can watch you write the word "T H A N K S" on a piece of paper.
If your child can make a straight line, your child might even help you write part of the letter "T" in the word. If your child can write a straight line (vertically and then horizontally), your child can help you write all of the letter "T" - and even "H." And if your child can write any part of his or her name (like part or all of the first letter in your child's name), by all means suggest this too. Of course, all efforts to write are to be appreciated and praised! Children love comments like, "I see your line. It goes up and down. Now I see your line that goes across. You're really learning how to make a 'T.' You're really helping to write 'thank you.' That's wonderful!"
Q: How else can my young children help to write thank you notes?
A: There are several other ways that children can learn to write thank you notes - and they can have fun doing so.
Within an hour - or several hours - of your child getting a gift, you might want to talk with your child about how you and your child like the gift (book, toy, whatever). Then you might want to say how nice/sweet/thoughtful/kind it was of so-and so to give your child this gift. You can also say to your child that so-and so will be so happy to know that you (we) like it.
Instead of buying a store-bought card, young children can make a drawing (anything from a colorful scribble to a recognizable object, person, or scene - whatever your child is capable of doing). You can write a quick note on the page that says "THANKS FOR THE BOOK. WE LIKE IT!" and sign both your names. This makes a very fine, age-appropriate, thank you note.
Here's yet more ways for children to write thank you notes.
If your young children are capable of answering you when you say "Tell me what you like about this present," by all means ask them. And quickly (in front of them) write down their exact words. In other words, take dictation.
Your children can watch you write down what they like about the gift. Perhaps they'll say something like, "The book is fun. I like how the puppy and the girl play in the snow" or "I like the sweater. Red is my favorite color." Then read out loud exactly what each child has just said, perhaps pointing underneath each word as you read.
Young children find it fascinating - and satisfying - that their words can be written down and read back to them. They also find it amazing - and gratifying - if later that day, you or (someone else) reads it back to them and the words are still there and understandable.
Include a drawing or two from your children, and perhaps they can even write part or all of their names. Get their help to fold the papers and put them in a big envelope. Get their help to put a stamp or two on the envelope. Let them watch as you print the person's name and address. And let them "decorate" the back of the envelope using a few colorful crayons, if you and they wish.
Basically, for the price of postage, you have helped your children express their appreciation, be creative, be verbal, and practice writing. You've also helped your children see that words can be written down and re-read, and that their words have meaning and importance. And you've helped your children understand that they can help make someone else (the gift-giver) happy - and make you proud.
Q: What about using a store-bought card?
A: There's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't compare. Store-bought cards don't give your child the opportunity to personally and creatively say thank you. And store-bought cards don't give your child a useful and varied educational experience.
That's why my husband and I made it a family tradition to make cards for our daughter for her birthdays and for other holidays. And it's why we encouraged our daughter, from an early age, to make cards for us too. (If it was my birthday, and she was young enough to need some help, my husband did this with her. If it was his birthday, I would do this with her. And if it was her birthday, my husband and I would make some kind of a drawing and write a personal message inside.)
As the years went on, her drawings became more complex. Her spelling and handwriting improved. A few words became several sentences and then paragraphs. Words that were initially printed in capital letters and then a combination of capital and lower case letters were written in script - and then typed on a computer and even laid out attractively with different size letters and fonts. An age-appropriate, wonderful progression.
Would my husband and I have saved every store-bought card? Maybe, but probably not.
Have we saved every hand-made card with her drawings and written messages. Yes!