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According to David Eddie, an ungrateful daughter-in-law is in need of a ‘praise sandwich’Getty Images/iStockphoto

The question

I have a daughter-in-law who almost never says thank you for anything. She and our son are in their late 20s, with two small children, and my husband and I help them out quite a bit with both money and gifts. But almost never does she say thank you for either thing, even when we place a gift directly in her hands. We have tried to consider whether we are being picky and obsessive about this, but we cannot get over it. It just seems to violate a basic human rule about reciprocity. Recently, we learned that another relative had given a gift and experienced the same thing; he was quite upset about it. She is not our child and is 29 years old, so saying something direct just does not seem in order. Yet we feel it would be good for her to know how it affects us and other people. Can you think of anything to do?

The answer

First, I want to say "thank you" for the gift of your excellent question.

It's a pet peeve of my wife's: No one in the public sphere seems to say "thank you" for anything any more.

It particularly irks her when she gives someone money and they express zero gratitude. "But when I tip someone and they don't say thanks? I want to slap them." (She wouldn't: she's being hyperbolic.)

Now she's infected me with noticing it, too. It's true: People don't say "thank you" as much as they used to. Same with "you're welcome." The other day I thanked some dude for something and he just said "Mmm-hmm." Leaving me thinking: "What's all this 'Mmm-hmm' crap?"

I don't think it's trivial or inconsequential at all – or that, as you put it, you're being "picky" or "obsessive."

It's called "polite society" for a reason, and it's what separates us from the beasts (although, according to Jerry Seinfeld, what separates us from the beasts is humans don't refuse money – funny!).

Here in Canada, we take it very seriously indeed – traditionally, at least. We're famous for it. (Originally from America, I've become very Canadian over the years. Today, for example, I apologized to my computer. I was supposed to ctrl-click on something but hit the wrong button, and said: "Oops, sorry." To a computer.)

I have one friend who actually sends a thank-you note in the mail whenever she gets a present. I'm always so impressed when I receive one of these antiquated artifacts, and know it buys her hell's own amount of goodwill.

The operative word here being "goodwill." I don't see your daughter-in-law sending thank-you notes in the mail any time soon, but if you care for her at all I do think you should talk to her – because she's losing goodwill out the yin-yang, and that could hurt her long term.

I wouldn't go through your son, by the way, as some might say, because that a) puts him in an awkward position, b) might seem to her like ganging up, and c) could have a broken-telephone effect if he gets your words twisted and/or puts his own spin on them.

Of course, be super polite. Lead by example. The notion of a "praise sandwich" is a hoary chestnut/cliché of the advice world but if you've ever tried it you will know it's an amazingly effective way of getting your message across while causing the minimum of offence.

I don't know her, or you, but the general idea is:

Start by saying nice things; e.g., what a lovely daughter-in-law, great mom to your grandchildren, wonderful addition to the family, stuff like that. That's the "bread."

Then gently, gently offer the observation that she doesn't say thank you for things and you wish she would; it would make you happy. That's the "meat."

I wouldn't mention here that other people have remarked on it: That's guaranteed to make her feel ganged up on and get her back up.

Then back to the praise. She's great, you love her, etc etc. That's the other piece of "bread" in the "praise sandwich." Just to be clear.

Of course she might squawk, freak out, stomp off in a huff. Maybe it'll take her a while to process the whole matter. I've noticed with my own boys (teenagers), sometimes I'll say something to them, they'll blow their stacks, stomp off in a huff – then think it over and ultimately do the thing I suggested.

In her shoes, I personally wouldn't bristle, though. Ultimately, she should realize you're doing her a favour, one you might just as well not have done, and one that will benefit her in so many ways: it'll be better for her career, relationships, and reputation, just for starters.

In short, you'd be giving her a gift.

And she should say thank you.

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