London - Every year on Christmas Day I drive my children mad by refusing to let the present-opening ritual begin until I’ve found a pen and notebook, in which each gift must be recorded before the next is opened.
In a few days’ time, you see, I know that my tedious list will be much consulted. It won’t alleviate their pain at the annual chore of writing Christmas thank-you letters, but at least it ensures no relative or godparent is forgotten or - just as bad - thanked for the wrong gift.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much this additional delay irritates them. But what I know - and they will one day realise for themselves - is that a well-written thank you letter is a delight to be cherished and re-read, just as the absence of one is a hurtful, never-to-be-forgotten slight.
(And not just at Christmas - one colleague discovered her wedding gift of £100 had been received by the couple only when the cheque was cashed; almost a year on, she’s still had no thank-you letter.)
This year, a friend was so upset at having received no acknowledgement of her carefully selected Christmas gifts to her teenage nephew and nieces - who live abroad - that she rang their mother to check that they’d actually arrived.
She was assured they had, and a day later received a one-sentence email of thanks from each of them - so hastily dashed off that some words were missing. She decided to make a gentle point.
She sent each a long, chatty email back, asking how their Christmas had been and telling them a bit about hers, and gently stating that, while their thank-you emails had been appreciated, a letter would have delighted her even more.
Needless to say, she’s heard nothing further from either of them. But their mother has huffily told her she thinks her response was chippy and unnecessary.
Those of us with teenage children can sympathise. Self-centred teenagers are easily affronted, and the parental desire to avoid conflict is understandably strong.
In his new book Sorry! The English And Their Manners, the writer and critic Henry Hitchings devotes an exasperated chapter to ‘the trouble with children’ in which he notes that our child-centric culture has resulted in parents encouraging their children “to believe in their superlative importance, and while this is meant to empower them, its result is often a cosseted, bratty egomania”.
The decline in the sending of proper thank-you notes - which, according to my own deeply unscientific straw poll of friends and colleagues, is as steep as it is recent - is just one small but significant consequence of this.
As a child, I used to dread them with a passion - although not so much, possibly, as the colleague who was told each thank-you letter had to cover two sides of A5, or the friend whose mother, on reading her last line - “Sorry this letter is so messy, lots of love, Olivia” - told her: “Why is it messy? Do it again.”
Forty years on, though, I realise that the writing of thank-you letters should be hard work.
Far more than an email, which can be tapped out in less than a minute, they communicate to those who love you that you’re grateful for the thought, time and expense they put into not only choosing and buying your present but wrapping it and posting it.
They show that you appreciate their effort, and are prepared to make one in return. They’re also a useful reminder to children that they’re not the only people in the world.
Plus, they provide a valuable lesson in the art of creative writing: “Dear Great Aunt Edna, I love the cardigan you knitted for me. It’s a perfect fit and two of my friends have asked to borrow it already.”
The irony is that today’s children spend their lives texting or instant messaging on Facebook, but can’t be roused from their self-obsessed, virtual social whirl to spend so much as half an hour bothering to make legible marks on paper with a pen.
Doubtless it won’t be long before we count ourselves lucky if we get so much as a text: “Thx 4 the gr8 present x.”
Meanwhile, to those of you who’ve received no thanks at all, I commend the actions of a former colleague who, driven to despair by the lack of gratitude from his nephew, decided to ignore his next birthday altogether.
In response to his brother’s query as to why he hadn’t sent a card or a present this year, he replied airily that it must have got lost in the post - where doubtless it was keeping company with his nephew’s missing thank-you letter.... - Daily Mail