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The question

My wife and I have a number of married nieces and nephews (all over 30) to whom we send cheques at Christmas so they can buy something for themselves and their children. It's $200 for a family of four. Not a fortune, but respectable, we think. We know they got the money because the cheques were cashed. However, never do we get an e-mail or a call to say, "Thanks for the dough – we all went out and pigged out on pizza," let alone a handwritten thank-you note (so yesterday and out of fashion). We don't even know if their kids are told that they got a present from us. Our own child says it was drilled into them that you always say thank you and does so to this day. These ungrateful sods live hundreds and thousand of miles away and we seldom get together. Still, they are our siblings' offspring and we like giving presents. My wife says we should just cut them off. I want to call them and give them a blast. We both feel somewhat hurt that they think so little of us. What should we do?

The answer

This was signed "Aunt and Uncle What's-Their-Names," which I think is quite funny.

Gratitude, I've found, is something that needs to be learned – and relearned, sometimes many times in a lifetime.

I remember the birth of gratitude in my soul. Dave Eddie, 7, sails out of a house he just spent a week at, feeling zero appreciation: "Bye! See ya later!"

My mother, grabbing me by the elbow: "March back in there and thank them for everything they did for you, starting with breakfasts, lunches and dinners."

Seven-year-old me, scratching head, adjusting horn-rimmed glasses: "Huh. It's true they did a lot of stuff for me, including making all those delicious peanut-butter-banana sandwiches."

The gratitude node of my cerebral cortex grew two sizes that day – and I went in and said thanks.

Why the so-called "bread-and-butter" call the day after a social gathering has always been so important to me: It separates those who recognize their fun costs someone a lot of planning, preparation, work, and cleaning up – not to mention money – from those who feel it just magically "happened" to them because they're so "lucky."

(We had a guy stay with us once and expatiate on his luck because, "If you guys hadn't put me up, I would've had to sleep in the park." What a lucky guy he was, how he'd always been lucky – blissfully unaware of all the frantic background phone calls that led to his being there.)

In any case, your nieces and nephews should be disabused of the notion these cheques rain out of the sky because they're so "lucky."

Why not appeal to their parents? Keep it festive and positive, natch. Don't be passive-aggressive. No comments like: "We never hear back from your kids so we wonder if they're getting our cheques."

Nix. Just render a more pleasant rendition of what you've said to me. Something to the effect of: "We would appreciate it if your kids sent us a quick e-mail thanking us for the cheques. Apart from everything else, we'd just love to hear from them since we don't see them so often."

I wouldn't hope for a thank-you letter. I do have one friend, raised in the finest traditions, who sends thank-you cards for everything. I'm always deeply impressed and sometimes think we should all be following her example, but a) couldn't be bothered myself, and b) as you say, thank-you letters have probably gone the way of horse-drawn buggies, i.e. something you point out and explain to your kids when you spot one, but not really a part of modern society.

(Note to younger readers: a "letter" was like an e-mail that you had to print, put in an artifact known as an "envelope," put another artifact called a "stamp" on it, and then walk down and physically put in a "mailbox." Then a man or woman called a "postie" would hand deliver it to your friend! Far from instantaneous, these e-mail precursors sometimes took days or even weeks to reach their recipients!)

Now, some might say I'm urging you to push the Bad Dad/Bad Mom button. There might be some peripheral truth to that, but I think you are well within your rights to expect some expression of gratitude, and you are clearly seething and stewing – bad for the soul.

It could end well for both sides, really. A quick thank-you e-mail, taking a mere two minutes to write, could start a positive dialogue with them – and you might even wind up discovering these nieces and nephews, apart from this lapse in manners, aren't really such bad people after all.

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