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Money Smart Kids

Teach Your Kids to Say Thank You

Written notes are a nice way for your children to express their gratitude.

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Sitting on my kitchen counter at home are four thank-you cards for Christmas gifts, one of them from my husband's 90-year-old Aunt Helen, who writes regularly—and promptly—every year to thank us for the Christmas wreath we send. I'm not as prompt as Aunt Helen, so when her card arrives, it reminds me to write my own holiday thank-you notes. And just in time: January is National Thank You Month.

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It strikes me that all of the cards I've received are from adults. Sending thank-you notes may be becoming a lost art among children, much like writing in cursive. And this neglect may be enabled, if unintentionally, by busy parents who don't encourage their kids to take the time to write. Let's face it: Kids are unlikely to extend the courtesy spontaneously on their own; they require a little nudge from you.

I think it's important that children learn not only gratitude but also how to express it. Every gift, no matter how small, deserves a thank-you in some form, and a written note is most desirable. Allowing for the fact that parents and kids have a lot on their plates, I'll suggest a few rules of thank-you etiquette that will get the job done as painlessly as possible:

Use your judgment to match the expression of thanks with the gift. If a gift is impromptu, for example, a verbal thank-you, a phone call, even an e-mail or text message can be acceptable. But, says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, "a very special gift demands a very special thank-you note. After all, the gift-giver took the time to choose it."

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Make it personal. A preprinted card is fine, but your child should add a line or two mentioning the specific gift and telling how much he likes it or what he plans to do with it.

Make it a pleasant experience. One mother I know helps her preschooler make thank-you cards with construction paper and stickers. "We might use a picture of an ice cream cone, and I'll write something like, 'Thanks for the gift, it was really sweet.' It's corny, but everyone loves receiving the cards. And they're great refrigerator art." (When my children were young, my mother once framed a thank-you note from my son and hung it on the dining-room wall.)

Whitmore says that even as an adult, she sets aside a special time and place to write thank-you notes, and she keeps a caddy full of colored pens and a selection of stationery. "It serves as a reminder, and it's fun."

Use social media creatively. Whitmore routinely sends gifts of money to her niece's two children, ages 3 and 5. Her niece shops with the children to choose things they'd like, and then she posts a video or photo of the kids with their gifts on Facebook. That's much more personal than, say, an e-mail, and it gets the kids involved.

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Keep it timely. Manners mavens—and Aunt Helen—would say you should send a note as soon as possible, preferably within a week of receiving a gift. But life has a way of intervening to put things off. For a holiday gift, January is still acceptable, says Whitmore. And it's never really too late. There's no time limit on gratitude. Better a delayed expression of thanks than none at all.

P.S. Last night, I came home and found a thank-you note from my son and daughter-in-law in today's mail. You guys rock!