The Lost Art of Saying Thank You

Nov 9, 2015

Sunlit Pages // Six things parents can do to cultivate real gratitude in themselves and their children.

It feels ironic to me to be writing this post because I had no intention of writing it. A few weeks ago, I planned out my posts for November, and this post was not on the schedule. If there's one thing November doesn't need, it's another gratitude post.

But then Halloween came. We wanted to go trick-or-treating as a family, and so we left a bowl of candy on our porch with the instructions, Take One. Most of our friends laughed at our naive trust. "Does that really work?" they asked. "I bet a couple of kids cleaned it out in the first five minutes."

It was still early in the evening, not even dark yet. I could imagine such a thing happening once it was late enough for the teenagers to be out, but right now, almost all of the kids I was seeing were accompanied by adults, and surely the parents wouldn't allow their kids to be so greedy and selfish?

Several days later, I was talking to a friend about Halloween. She told me about the haunted house she'd made in the back of her dad's truck where kids could reach into various compartments in search of candy. Even though she specifically said, "Please just take one piece of candy," the kids would leave with handfuls. Often, the parents were standing right there, listening to her instructions, watching their kids' actions, and doing nothing.

And then November came with its barrage of gratitude around every corner, but all I could see was this wide chasm of inconsistency between the actions on Halloween night and the actions during the first week of November. Were the same parents who had turned a blind eye to their children's greediness on Halloween the very ones who were now encouraging them to write little gratitude notes every day? It suddenly all seemed very superficial to me . . . like we're being grateful for show but not where it really matters. It might sound dramatic for me to say this, but there is a plague of ingratitude sweeping the world, and it is the parents who are at fault. Through word and action, we are teaching our kids how to pretend to be grateful while overlooking the very things that would actually cultivate that trait in each of us.

Here are some of the things I'm talking about:

Write thank you notes--real thank you notes--for  gifts or kind actions given. This is not a gratitude activity (Think of someone you're grateful for and write them a note). No, no, no. This is a practical and tangible response to an actual event (Scott gave you a birthday present, so you need to thank him for it). Yes, it takes time and effort on the part of the parent and the child (and I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I drop the ball and never remember to put on a stamp and stick it in the mail), but it is worth it. Of course, a mumbled, cursory "thank you" is better than nothing, but I promise you that your children will develop a deeper feeling of appreciation if they have to write it out and mail it.

Take care of your possessions. I've been thinking about this one a lot lately because we are not very good at it. My kids leave their scooters and their bikes (not to mention their socks and shoes and coats) all over the front lawn. They toss off their helmets and let them fall with cracking thumps to the driveway. They lose game pieces and marker lids and Lego guys. I'm almost certain this is as much an issue of having too much stuff as it is about being grateful for what we have, but that's a post for another day. Possessions are not expendable, but I think it often seems that way to our children. Just the other day, Aaron broke his watchband. It wasn't his fault (he got it caught while jumping at a trampoline place), but I'm still wondering if I made the right choice in immediately ordering him another one. Did it come across as, "Oh, you broke your watch? No big deal. Here's another one." I really want my kids to value what they have, take personal responsibility for it, and keep it in good condition.

Wait for an offer. Some of you will disagree with me on this one. I have friends who want their home to be open and inviting: Come on in, and feel free to raid the pantry and refrigerator! In some ways, that's great. It shows selflessness and generosity, but it does those on the receiving end a great disservice. They develop an entitled attitude (which is probably why, even when my friend told the kids to just take one piece of candy, they felt like they could disregard what she said and grab a handful). I'm always reminding my kids when they go to a friend's house, "Do not ask for food. If it's offered to you, you may say, 'yes, please' or 'no, thank you.'" I know they don't always listen (especially if it's in a home where they feel very comfortable--sorry, Sonja!), but I'm not giving up. Part of being grateful involves not assuming that the world is yours for the taking.

Practice saying "thank you." A few years ago, I was at a bridal shower where the bride-to-be didn't say thank you even once as she sat opening gifts. It seemed like a glaring oversight to me, but she seemed totally unfazed. I wondered how you could get to adulthood and not have saying "thank you" come up as a natural response, but as I taught this skill to my children, I began to understand. One of my children is very shy and will do almost anything to get out of saying "thank you" to someone because it embarrasses him. I have to give him many opportunities to practice saying those two little words so that they don't make him feel so uncomfortable. Forcing my children to say thank you and practicing it with them might seem superficial, but I believe this is one of my jobs as a parent. When I was growing up, we couldn't leave the table without thanking my mom for the "delicious dinner." Was it always perfectly sincere? No, but my parents were giving us opportunities to practice saying thank you in an environment that was safe and non-judgmental. We developed feelings of real gratitude as we gave acknowledgement to others through our verbal thanks.

Be generous. When we feel thankful, we share our bounty with others. Isn't that kind of the message behind the first Thanksgiving? The American Indians helped the Pilgrims with their crops, and then the Pilgrims shared their feast with them. When we feel blessed, a natural response should be that we want to find someone to help. But again, sometimes those "natural" responses take a little nudging before they become habits, and we have a responsibility to encourage such giving.

Practice daily gratitude. Because we are religious, my family and I have many opportunities every day to acknowledge our blessings through prayer. Whether you're religious or not though, the act of daily gratitude is so important. That's why gratitude journals and challenges and posters are so popular. People realize that when they take a step back and acknowledge their blessings, they are happier. For me, I choose to do this in my prayers and thank my Heavenly Father who I believe is the Giver of all good things.

I guess my main point with all of this is that we have got to stop assuming that our children will grow up and magically write thank you notes, take care of their possessions, wait for an offer, say thank you, be generous, and practice daily gratitude. They won't. Unless we make it a habit now, unless we give them opportunities to be grateful every day, unless we model this behavior ourselves, and unless we really expect this behavior from them, they won't. Let's halt the plague of ingratitude, right now, during this month of Thanksgiving so that next October, there will be very different children saying, "Trick or Treat."


  1. Let me be the first to say THANK YOU for this post, Amy! I agree with everything you wrote.

  2. Great post. You hit it out of the park. Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of gratitude often. It was one of his Six B's ( It is a mark of a true disciple of Christ. Thank you for following the prompting to write this. - Papa

  3. Thank you for this post, Amy. It is so needed in our spoiled, thoughtless society any more. I say thank you often but am lax on writing notes like I should any more. By the way this is from Gramazetta but will show as David and Bonnie Nielsen I believe.

    1. You've always been good about writing thank you notes, Gramazetta. I think at almost 86 you're allowed to take a break! :-)

  4. I like this post very much, too, Amy. This is something that I do work on with my daughter, and I think that your concrete suggestions will be really helpful.

    My daughter received a beautiful, personal, hand-drawn thank you card from a girl in her Kindergarten class recently, and it gave me hope :-).

    1. Wow, that's awesome! Our society might be okay after all! :-)

  5. I love this post. I'm a huge believer in thank you notes. I don't write them quite as often as I should, but I do regularly pull out a card and think about who I can express gratitude to. I love stationery, so my motivation for buying more cards is to write,write, write thank you notes.

    1. Thanks, Melanie. I agree with you--there's something so lovely about writing on beautiful stationery!


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