Teaching children why and how to express thanks

Teach your children ways to express thanks through daily interaction and routines.

Follow these guidelines for assisting young children in expressing thanks. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Dominik Gwarek.

Follow these guidelines for assisting young children in expressing thanks. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Dominik Gwarek.

Teaching basic manners to young children generally includes the rules for “why” and “how” to say “thank you.” We begin saying the words in front of our children and expect them to mimic our words and actions. For example, “Tell your grandma thank-you for the cookie.,” “Did you remember to say thank you to your brother for sharing his toy?” or “Don’t you think you should say thank-you when someone helps you out?”  As children grow and develop it is an expectation of most adults that the early lessons for saying thanks will be old-hat and that children will automatically remember to express appreciation for a kind act or gift.

The value in writing or receiving a written note in exchange for goods or services is something that can assist in building character as well as assist in improving a child’s writing and critical thinking skills.  Thank-you notes let a giver know that you care about them. They also let someone know that their gift or their act of kindness was received and/or appreciated.  Michigan State University Extension suggests that the keys to success in expressing gratitude should begin at a young age, be part of a thankfulness routine and be completed in a timely fashion. 

Children will not learn manners by observing behaviors and having an adult constantly remind them.  According to MSU Extension, it is important to have a plan in place to teach thankfulness that fits with a child’s age and stage of development.  Make the process fun and make it a habit.  Set a time for the task and be on hand to assist at every age.  You may want to write your own note of thanks at the same time and set the example of saying “thanks.”  Some guidelines for assisting young children in expressing thanks include:

  • Infants and toddlers - Very young children who are pre-verbal and not yet writing will not be designing thank-you notes.  At this stage a parent or caregiver is the designated writer.  You can take a picture of the child with the gift or have the child hold it as you describe who it came from or how you feel about it.  Toddlers can scribble something on the page (perhaps a drawing of the gift as they see it).  Many young children receive an abundance of gifts and don’t recall who gave them what.  Remind the child who gave the gift and talk about the giver; share a photo of the person.  As a toddler becomes more verbal he can tell an adult about the gift and his feelings and the adult can write the words as he dictates.
  • Preschoolers - As children begin to write letters, their name and other words, they can now assist more actively in the writing of a thank-you note.  Have lots of note making supplies on hand; crayons, markers, pencils, stickers, scissors and paper.  A piece of artwork can be included with a note from the parent that a child dictates.  At this stage, notes don’t need to be long or wordy.  A statement that describes a child’s feelings is adequate; I love the color of my new PJ’s, or, I had fun playing with my game.  Have your child sign his name to the card.
  • Early elementary - School age children should be encouraged to express their feelings and emotions in writing.  At this stage, parents and caregivers should have a discussion about the gift or event and help the child expand his vocabulary by asking questions and making observations.  Talking with young children about how to address an envelope as they observe you will teach them an additional life skill.  With school age children the parent acts as a teacher; editing, checking spelling and sharing wisdom.  Mirror your child’s words.  Remind him of what he said when he received the gift or how he described it to his friend on the phone.  Provide thank-you notes that are kid friendly and have them ready to go with stamps in place.

Ask questions and make statements about gifts to get children thinking. Consider questions such as, what do you think you will buy with this check?, how else could you use this?,  what do you think of this color?, how do you think grandpa even thought of buying this for you?, and this scarf is so warm and must have taken lots of time to make.  Talk about the gift and why it is special. Although writing thank-you notes may seem old-school to some, it is still an exercise that can be an important life skill.  Talk with your children about the meaning of gifts; not just what the gift is.  Raising thankful kids can be “a fine art of helping them make their own meaning.”

Is it all right to send an electronic thank you?  In today’s digital age, you may choose to let the child send a quick note through email or an e-card to let a giver know that a gift arrived.  It is still important to follow up with a written note.  Some people are happy with electronic thanks, but many others prefer a hand-written thank-you note

Good manners include teaching your children how and when to creatively express their thanks to others verbally, and in writing.  Promoting kindness starts at home. With the holidays fresh in your memory a great time to begin is today!

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