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How to get ungrateful kids to shape up Add to ...

The question

My nephew’s kids in the U.K. are aged 14, 12 and 9. They are likeable and we’ve always enjoyed each others’ company. However, they seem to get the whole of Santa’s workshop at Christmas and on birthdays, so I send money instead (£50/$83 per person). While I invariably get a thank you from their dad, it’s always been diddly squat from the recipients themselves. They all have e-mail and could easily send my way those two little words of gratitude, but to date never have. I am contemplating forgetting the cash and sending three lumps of coal by Canada Post next year – that is, if it’s still around. What do you advise? P.S. I come from a tradition where the last present under the tree for me was, without fail, some writing paper and envelopes for sending thank yous. This began as soon as I could scrawl my own name!

The answer

Well, you may just have answered your own question, so consider this a thank-you note for that.

Maybe it’s the time of year (reflective). Maybe it’s the fact I’m writing this on my birthday (which one? None of your business!). But the older I get the more I think the ticket to being a complete human being, even more than humility, is an all-embracing gratitude – that we should be grateful for everything, both good and bad, remembering that life is a gift which could just as well not have been given to us.

My youngest son, Adam, is like that. An astute kid with perpetually pricked-up ears, he somehow at some point caught wind of the fact that his very existence was a subject of heated debate between his mother and me. Me: “Pam, we’re already hanging on by our fingernails as it is! A third kid would sink our little ship! There’d just be a big BLOOP and we’d never be heard from again!” Her: “I know, Dave, but I just don’t feel finished yet.”

Guess who won? (Hint: same person who always does.)

Anyway, when Adam found this out (can’t remember how) he thought about it – and came up smiling! Happy to be alive? You’ve never seen anyone so brimming with joie de vivre, brio and sprezzatura. Ask him how his day went: “Great!” How’s school? “Awesome.” Like your dinner? “Delicious!” And so on.

We should all be more like that. And the best way to express our all-embracing gratitude is via the thank-you note. E-mails are great, certainly better than “diddly squat,” and of course everyone should phone after parties and dinners and everything else to say “thank you” (what my mother and generations of parents called “the bread and butter call” – i.e., you had to do it).

But the highest form is the thank-you note. A lost art, perhaps, but why not help bring it back? Thank-you notes have a way of hanging around – and you’d be amazed at some of the things people have written thank-you notes for in the past. Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, wrote a thank-you note (25 years after the fact: It’s never too late!) to the makers of his spacesuit for building it so well, making him feel safe. U.S. President Barack Obama wrote a thank-you note to Canadian author Yann Martel for the elegance and beauty of his book Life of Pi.

These are great gestures! So yes, in short, I like your idea of including stationery and why not even a self-addressed, stamped envelope along with the cheque you send them every year. Accompanied perhaps by a cheeky note to the effect of how you’d love to hear from them. How could they not begin such a note with the words “Thank you”?

Think of it this way. You’ll be doing them a huge favour. If it starts them on a life-long habit of writing thank-you notes for things, you’re probably helping steer them down a road towards becoming much more successful and happy than they would be as non-thank-you-note writers.

I’m not saying this is a reason for doing it, but thank-you notes have the excellent effect of instilling good will towards the note-writer in the hearts of the recipient. And who knows how that could pay off after a job interview, party at boss’s house, dinner at attractive person’s parents’ house, etc.

If they still don’t respond, give it one last shot, perhaps an e-mail saying, “I wasn’t sure if you got the money I sent you. …” Don’t be “cross,” as they might say across the pond. But do be pointed.

At that point, if they still don’t respond, then I’d say keep your money. Give it to someone who appreciates it. Who has gratitude in his or her soul, and expresses it.

What am I supposed to do now?

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