Handwritten Thank-You Notes Offer Many Ways To Learn
Parents can add humor—and math and history learning—to this task, which is one that most children initially resist.
by Kathy Shiels Tully
Gracias. Merci. Danke. Mahalo. Dankie. Tack. Kiitos.
Did you know that “thank you” can be written in more than 465 languages? Even though it’s two simple words, most parents meet with resistance from their tech-savvy, time-crunched kids when they insist the kids write these words in the form of a thank-you note. Sometimes the resistance from children is so great that parents are left wondering whether it’s worth the bother.
Should you push your daughter to write thank-you notes? Force your son to get them written before going out to play? Besides good manners and social graces, is there anything kids can learn from penning such notes?
And do they have to be handwritten? What if your daughter wants to call grandma on the phone to say thanks, or your son insists it would be easier and more efficient to email a thank-you to his aunt for the birthday gift?
Yes and yes, say the experts. Requiring kids to handwrite thank-you notes uses math skills, creative writing skills, and perhaps most important, builds relationship skills.
In addition to the above, Jan Olsen, founder of Handwriting Without Tears in Maryland, says having kids write handwrite thank-you notes also teaches manners. “Good manners are about building and maintaining relationships,” Olsen says. “Manners set you apart and make your life richer.”
In addition, says Olsen, who has provided handwriting training and curricula to parents and teachers across the country and abroad for more than 30 years, “People need to be recognized and appreciated.”
As for the verbal vs. handwritten debate, Olsen says that while a verbal thank-you is OK, a handwritten note is better. “[That’s] because it can be saved, reread, and enjoyed [by the recipient],” she says, recounting a personal story about a thank-you note she handwrote to children’s author Katherine Paterson, author of the book Bridge to Terabithia. After sending the award-winning author a note of appreciation, Olsen was surprised to receive one back herself from the author, who wrote, “I was having a bad day and your letter really cheered me up.”
“Even celebrities and famous people like to be appreciated,” Olsen points out. And a handwritten note from a child is especially treasured whether or not the recipient is a relative.
Thank You for That? Teaching Kids the Art of Diplomacy
Creative writing, and learning to be diplomatic and polite, can be introduced to children through the act of handwriting thank-you notes. “There’s a deliberate pause required with the act of writing by hand,” Olsen says. “The writer needs to reflect on the reason for expressing thanks. A child’s obligation to describe, evaluate, and reflect [on the gift] is of value.” And diplomacy is learned, Olsen says, in those “challenging circumstances” when, for example, your son has received a gift he doesn’t want—or doesn’t care for.
Though Olsen says that “truth-telling is important,” she explains that a child doesn’t have to reveal everything he feels or thinks about a gift. Diplomacy is a social grace, she says, so teach your son write something like “I’m so happy you think of me [at this holiday, on my birthday, or special occasion].” Another graceful way to say thank-you in situations like this:“I’ll always think of you when I look at ____.”
Olsen suggests that parents write thank-you notes together with their children, beginning at a young age.
“The message you give your children,” Olsen says, “is that ‘this is what our family does.’”
Teach Math Skills Through Thank-You Notes
Bon Crowder, a Texas-based mom who’s also a mathematician, is the author of the e-book Mom & Me Math: Milk Bones & Cheese and publisher of the math education website Math Is Not a Four-Letter Word. Crowder says many elements of math can be explored when writing thank-you notes.
“Think about how many cards there are to write, then help your child figure out how much time it will take to do them all, “ Crowder says. “[Begin by timing] how long it takes to write one, then multiply by the number of cards to be written.” Then, help your child calculate how much postage is needed using various stamps of different amounts.
Parents can also help children translate the value of a gift card to what they’d like to use it toward, which also helps them see the value of the gift. They can then include that information in the thank-you note by writing about their intended use of the card. For example, “Dear Aunt Pam: Thank you for the $25 gift card. I’m hoping to use it to buy a new doll.” Determining the value of what the gift card can buy “is math,” Crowder says.
Handwritten Notes Can Be Fun To Write—Really!
Writing thank-you notes, and doing so by hand, is seen by many kids as an “etiquette chore,” says Cat Wagman, president of Working Words Inc., and author of Why…THANK YOU! How To Have FUN Writing Fantastic Notes and More.
Fifteen years ago, Wagman went to her elder son’s 3rd grade class in South Florida and presented the idea of writing thank-you notes as an adventure in creative writing. She set a goal of having the students write just three to five sentences while granting them full permission to use their imagination and sense of humor.
“Magic happened,” she says. Her book grew out of that presentation and was developed with both children and parents in mind. “Teachers said parents needed just as much help as the kids!” she explains.
In the preface of her book, Wagman writes, “When my parents were kids, they had to write thank-you notes….However, I don’t think anyone has ever approached it as something fun to do. How many times do you think kids have heard the following? ‘Did you write a thank-you note to Grandma yet?!?’ or ‘Just write a note and be done with it already!’”
Wagman says too many people get bogged down with the form or structure of a thank-you note. “However,” she says, “when something is fun to do, no matter how hard or challenging it may seem, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes”—and that’s as true for adults as it is for kids.
Teach Kids Handwriting’s Place in History
Margaret Shepherd, a calligraphy expert and author of The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication, says there’s another reason to write longhand. Studies have shown that learning to write longhand creates “different pathways in the brain and encourages a different kind of thinking,” she explains.
Handwriting has also long been the language of poets. Shepherd cites the following stanza about the written word from the poem “Life” by 18th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The tongue is prone to lose the way,
Not so the pen, for in a letter
We have not better things to say,
But surely say them better.
Parents can also incorporate fun history lessons about handwriting while their children pen their thank-you notes. National Handwriting Day is observed every year on Jan. 23, the birth date of John Hancock, the first signer of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, a person’s signature is known as their “John Hancock”—an idiom resulting from Hancock’s rather large signature on the historic document.
And according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, which sponsors National Handwriting Day, handwritten documents “have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements, and declared independence.”
“Though computers and email play an important role in our lives, nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word,” says David H. Baker, WIMA’s executive director.
Freelance writer Kathy Shiels Tully and her husband live with their two daughters north of Boston.