After our presents are unwrapped and the fun and activities of the Christmas season draw to a close, I sit down with my kids and we write thank you notes for the presents we received. It’s become a part of our routine. Every holiday and birthday I am astounded by the generosity of our family and friends. I want to raise my children to understand, appreciate, and reciprocate this generosity. And I want them to be grateful for all of the wonderfully thoughtful people in our lives. For our family, writing thank you notes is a step toward encouraging our children to be grateful, giving and considerate of others.
There is a ton of research that supports the value of teaching our children gratitude. In research highlighted in his book Thanks!, Dr. Emmons of UC Davis found that practicing gratitude can increase one’s happiness by 25%. 1. In children specifically, research has determined that children who practice gratitude are more optimistic and have less negative feelings than those who don’t. They felt better about their school life, better about their personal life, and appreciated close relationships more. Want more info? I love this article.
In addition, letter writing supports many common core standards. If you are the parent of a school-aged child, writing thank-you notes is a great way to keep your child’s brain active and support their progress in school during winter break.
Where to start
I always first make a list of the presents we received and who sent them. Each child should have their own list so that they can start writing their thank yous with the top person on the list and move their way down, checking off names as they move down the list completing cards.
Be patient with your child and yourself. You are taking the time to involve your child in writing their own thank you notes, and this will be more time consuming than doing it yourself. However, I know that our family and friends won’t mind waiting a few extra days (okay… weeks) to receive our thank you if it means a little piece of my kids’ appreciation, and not just my writing, is in that envelope.
Find a plan that works for you – this process should be fun, so space out the writing if it helps. Your child, no matter their age, will likely not have the stamina to sit down and write 15 notes in a single sitting. So find a plan that works instead! Maybe you write one card a day? Maybe you write 3 cards every Sunday morning until they’re done? Find what works for your family!
Modeling gratitude is really important, so if possible, write your own thank you notes while your child writes theirs.
Okay… onto the fun part. What should this actually look like for your child? What can your child do based on their age?
0-2 years old:
At this age, your child can be involved in an art project or picture that you send along with a thank you note.
You can take a picture of your child as they are using (or wearing) the presents that they received. Order these sticky-back postcards, print out all of the pictures that you’ve taken and make a postcard with your child’s picture on the back! Write a quick note on the front (or have your child write it if they are older) and you are done. I love this because it works for ANY age and who wouldn’t love getting a picture of your adorable child on their thank you?
Instead you may have an art project set up for your child so that they can make a batch of projects that you can send as thank yous. I’ve had my kids paint on index cards, they’ve colored pictures and they’ve painted on a single posterboard that I have cut down to small squares to send out. I have stamped their hand or footprints on cards. Really the sky is the limit! Whatever project you do, keep it small so that it can fit into the envelope you are using. Once your child has finished their project, write a quick sentence or two on the front or back of their art and mail it off!
You should talk to your preschooler about the purpose of thank you notes. This age can be less than socially appropriate when actually unwrapping gifts (You know that moment when they scream, “I don’t like this!!”, and you are absolutely mortified and want to disappear?), so writing thank you notes is a great, developmentally appropriate, way to begin to teach them about gratitude and considering the feelings of others.
Your child may still do an art project. You may also encourage them to dictate to you words that you can write down. Their words may not be phrased exactly as you would like them to be, and may not actually even include “thank you” or the name of the gift at all, but that is okay! (Most of my son’s 3rd birthday thank you letters were about sharks and an octopus because that’s what he was thinking about a lot at the time!) Write exactly what they say anyway. The recipient of the gift will love to hear their sweet words exactly as they are said, and you can write a quick, “The toy truck you sent is used every day in our house – we couldn’t love it more! Thank you!” below the words that your child has asked you to write.
In addition to making art or dictating, your child can help you put the stamps on envelopes and can put the envelopes in the mailbox to send off.
Your child may do an art project, may still be dictating words to you, or may be starting to write their own note. If they are dictating a note to you, they can begin to write their own name. Their dictated or written note should begin to be more focused. You can teach your child that thank you notes usually begin with “Thank you for the __________” and that they often include “I love it because ________”. You may even write these sentence-starters down for your child so that they can copy them and use them as a guide.
There are also fill-in-the-blank thank you cards that you can buy for your child that help them learn the structure of a thank you note (and make the process faster!). Some people love them, some people don’t. I totally get both sides. I like them because they provide young children with a scaffold as they are learning how thank-you notes are structured. I also like that they make the process faster for a child who has received a lot of gifts, has a lot of notes to write, and may begin to dread the writing process. However, I don’t think they should be used often, and think they should no longer be used after your child understands the structure of a thank you note and has more stamina for writing.
As your child is writing, I would encourage you not to correct their spelling or grammar. You want this process to be fun and empowering for your child. The more praise, love, and positive encouragement you can give them the better! There will be plenty of occasions where it will be appropriate and necessary to go over grammar and spelling with your child, but the goal of writing these thank yous is to express and learn about gratitude, not to create a perfectly crafted example of the English language.
Your lower elementary school child may also begin to write their return address on the envelope. (Does your child know their address? This is a great chance to repeat this and memorize it – which is important for safety!) You may have them help you copy recipient mailing addresses onto envelopes also. They can still stamp and mail the cards as well.
If you start young and have had your child involved in the thank you note writing process for years, they are pretty independent at this stage! They can write the notes fully on their own, find addresses, properly address an envelope, stamp, and mail the letter!
At this age, I encourage you to have a family expectation about thank you notes. You may decide that all thank you notes need to be finished before your child returns to school, before they use the thing that they received, or that they complete a card a day. Whatever your decision is, I would keep it consistent for every birthday or holiday so that your child knows your family’s expectation. So, if your child argues about completing thank yous, you could say “I know that you don’t want to write a thank you right now, but in our family, we write one thank you letter a day until everyone has been thanked that has given us a gift. Would you like to write your thank you note now or after dinner?” As the family expectation becomes routine, they’ll need less guidance from you.
I know this is hard, but I would still discourage you from correcting grammatical or spelling errors at this age. If you notice your child making an error that you want to address in the future, write a quick post it note to yourself, and do a quick activity addressing it later.