Thank you notes from children ─links between literacy and manners

I enjoy donating my children’s picture books (aimed at ages 3-8) to public libraries and leaving books at locations where there will be families with young children – at the laundermat,  doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and on seats in the airport. I imagine a harried parent doing laundry with a child in tow – they spot my book and sit down while their clothes spin in the washer  and read for a while – and take the book home with them. Whenever I go back to the local laundermat, the old magazines are stacked up but my books are missing. So maybe this is working – families have taken them home. Although my web address is included in the back of the book, I have never heard from anyone who has picked up my books – and that’s fine ─ I don’t expect to hear back.

I also give books to work colleagues that have young children – and don’t expect to hear from their children either. But sometimes I do. And each time it happens, I’m reminded how nice it is to receive a thank you note from the child. I never imagined writing a blog about “thank you” notes. But here goes.

A parent gives her child a book and explains she knows the writer and the writer has written an inscription to the child in the book. One of these parents tells me her daughter thinks I write the books she gets from me just for her. I love this thought.

My first thank you note came from this parent’s older daughter a couple of years ago. It was a drawing from Keni on pink paper; and on the back side, stickers of a princess in a carriage, a princess waving with a crown pasted above her head and various strategically placed scepters. Keni’s mom has a younger daughter who’s working on a thank you note to the latest book I shared (this is the daughter who thinks I’m writing books just for her). At least I think she is ─ her mom sent me an email recently asking what my favorite color is, telling me this was for a surprise. I told her “green,” imagining I might be receiving a green piece of art one of these days from her daughter – and looking forward to seeing what she would be coming up with. [She sent me a green yarn tassel she’s made for my luggage!]

I forgot I’d given a book to another colleague who has two children. Last week on my desk was a thank you note from her 8 year old daughter, Vivienne, carefully written in pencil on large-lined notebook paper with monster pictures at the header and end of the note. A truly wonderful and appreciated note.

These children did not write their notes and draw these pictures under their own steam. I know their moms made them sit down and work on them.This is great parenting ─ and so important for many reasons. The kids are obviously learning to read through their parents reading to them. The kids are also developing writing and related thinking skills (you can’t write unless you think of something to write). This is all about developing their literacy ─ reading, writing and the thinking that goes with developing these skills.

But there’s something about writing thank you notes –  thanking people –that is related to literacy development, the development of communications skills. I’m thinking of the word, manners, and how manners may be related to literacy development. So, I went to the Internet to check my perceptions about manners. Three sites jumped out at me (am not including the many card-shop sites that want you to purchase a ready-made card and get your kids to do their “thanks yous” by writing their name on it):

  • Ann Brenoff writes a great blog (5/22/2014) at Huffington Post[1], “8 Reasons Your Kid Won’t Write Thank You Notes.”  Basically she says, it comes down to the parents ─ your kid doesn’t write the note because “you don’t make him.”  Brenoff describes some ways she gets her son to write notes; and she does not permit “professionally printed” notes with her son signing them, or text and email notes. If I was in one of the arguments I used to have with my son when he was young about writing thank you notes, I would pull out Brenoff’s blog and read it to him out loud so he would know it wasn’t just me insisting a note was in order.
  • Catherine Newman in “5 Tips for Writing Thank-You Notes with Kids”[2] writes about ‘why (and how) you should encourage your kids to embrace the thank-you note; and cultivate an attitude of gratitude along the way.’ She cites research from Jeffrey Froh (assistant professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Gratitude in Youth at Hofstra University) that “gratitude may be crucial to compassion, empathy, and even happiness.” Froh says “Grateful kids tend to be much more satisfied with their lives…They do better in school and are less materialistic, less depressed, and less envious. Their relationships are much stronger and more supportive.”  He doesn’t mention literacy, of course, but I’m going to offer the view that taking the time to think about writing a note and writing a note, are important elements of developing literacy.
  • It would be remiss not to go to the landmark for manners, Emily Post. When my son was 9 or 10 years old and the manners discussion was in order, we went to the bookstore to purchase the original book on manners published in 1922, Etiquette. Because many of the cultural norms were well on their way to “antiquated” after 50 years, my son thought this was actually a comedy book. We did make reading through the chapters a fun activity as I tried to underscore why it was not appropriate to race ahead of his grandmother to run through a door first and then let the door slam in her face (he argued it was for her health – opening heavy doors would be good for her strength-building as she got older ─ and he should enter a place first to check it out).  And why it was not good to talk with a full mouth of food (the argument was, if I could understand his words why did it matter vs. the view that no one wanted to watch the mastication process up close and personal).  And, of course, there was the thank you note chapter. Over a period of a month, we got through most chapter topics, me trying to impart the message that manners are important. At the time I don’t think it made much of a dent. But my son did write thank you notes because I made it clear, that was a requirement to receiving a gift.

Today, rather than the 1922 book you can go to the Emily Post website sponsored by The Emily Post Institute, Inc. The Institute focuses on etiquette, defined as “treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty. It means being aware of how our actions affect those around us. Why? To help us build successful relationships.” The website changes with the times, recognizing it has to encompass ‘social networking to social graces,’ because “the principles of good manners remain constant.” Specifically about thank you notes, Emily Post[3] offers “Thank-you Note Tips for Children─Mom, Let’s Write Thank-You Notes!” The post is similar to what we all know if we stop and think about this.Your children are not going to think about writing a thank you note on their own, especially young children. And the prescriptions for success in this department are all about setting up a time to write notes, make them a fun project, and use this as a teachable moment – that ‘receiving thank-you notes makes people feel good and lets them know the gift arrived safely and is appreciated.’  Emily Post divides expectations by age ranges; i.e., what to do for 4-5 year olds, 6-10 year olds, 11-14 year olds, and 15-18 year olds. So if you have any doubts as a parent, visit this site.

I’m a writer of children’s books who appreciates receiving thank you notes from children, knowing their parents made them sit down and write these notes. I know these are parents who care about and understand how these efforts are related to their child’s developing literacy and relationship-building skills. All to say, it’s a good thing to take the time to get out the colored pens, crayons, paper, stickers, notebook paper, computer or whatever it is that gets your child’s attention – and work on a writing project after reading a book and start the reflection and thanking processes.

This is my thank you letter.