I will never forget the July 4th weekend a few summers ago when I sat on the porch of our rented lake house on a spectacularly sunny afternoon, suddenly panicked by the number of days that had elapsed since my daughter’s birthday party. “You guys go ahead on the boat,” I said to my husband. “I need to get through the rest of these thank yous.”
Which, yes. I had brought with me on vacation.
My daughter’s birthday falls at the end of June, and every July 4th weekend for the first few years of her life, I would slog through my handwritten who-gave-what list and carefully pen unique expressions of gratitude on pretty party-theme-matching stationary, doing my part in the sacred etiquette symbiosis of gift-giving and thank-you-note-receiving...while missing out on amazing life moments and fleeting summer days with every flick of the pen.
And for what?
When you see that small rectangle in the mail pile, with the return address of the kid your kid just partied with, you know exactly what it is. Do you even open it? If you do, and you read some hastily penned version of “Thanks for the gift,” do you feel… better? Truly more appreciated? I’m asking in all seriousness. Are you glad you got it? In our house, it’s just one more thing to recycle (two, if you count the note and the envelope).
After that summer vacation all those years ago. I stopped. Between birthdays and the holidays and impromptu grandparent present-ing, I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I hope you’re all not mad at me.
Here’s what I do instead. When I bring a holiday gift to a friend’s house and she says “Thank you!” I look my incredibly busy, caring friend in the eyes and from the bottom of my heart I tell her, “I’m so glad you like it. You’re so welcome. You do not need to write me a thank-you note.” I say it, and I mean it, and I always see relief flash across her face. And likewise, when someone brings me something special, I look them in the eyes, really connect with them and say the same thing. “This was so thoughtful of you. I love it, and am touched you remembered.” Then the topic is closed (from my side at least), never to be consummated by a throw-away note in the mail.
Of course, my kids are now old enough that they're technically capable of writing their own damn cards, and I know plenty of A+ parents who sit their littles down after the holidays and have them draw a beautiful picture, or sign their name or participate in some other way. But I don’t make my kids do this either. Because the point is to teach them the importance of expressing gratitude, and I don’t think obligatory thank you notes teach them that. I teach my kids to do their thanking face-to-face when they can.
But it’s also one of those things that’s like nuclear disarmament. It only really works if both sides agree and do it together. If I don’t make my kid write them, and you do make your kid write them—or worse, you’re expecting one from my kid—there’s bound to be trouble. Or maybe even hurt feelings? I don’t know. How do you really feel about these things? Aren’t they as outdated as kids calling grown-ups Mrs. so-and-so?
If thank you expressions are non-negotiable in your house, consider a half-way solution. What about a group email after the party or holiday? You could bcc the gift-givers and write one thoughtful, solid email to send to all. I would be so happy to receive that. Wouldn’t you?
I go half-sies occasionally, too. Sometimes during my kids’ present opening bacchanal after birthday parties, I will snap a pic and text it. Like last year when my daughter got the stuffie she’d been obsessing over. An adorable photo her snuggling with it says gratitude and “I love it!” better than any seven-days-later note, right?