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The Handwritten Thank-You Note: A Rare Breed

When was the last time you sent a handwritten note to anybody? I'm not talking about a post-it with a honey-do list or a note to your kid's teacher about the homework. I mean an honest, thoughtful note to send your thanks, sympathies, or salutations.

These thoughts dawned on me as my eight-year-old son wrote thank-you notes to the more than twenty friends who attended his recent birthday party. As is custom, each child brought a gift, and, another custom, I instructed my son to write his thank you notes. “But I don’t care if they send me a thank you note when I give them a gift!” he whined. Clearly I need to work with him on some grammar, but that took a back burner to the concept of gift acknowledgement.

“Exactly!” I confirmed. “But you should care! And, you won’t be able to open those boxes to play with those gifts if you can’t send a thank you note for every single one!” The thought of leaving Legos in their packaging sent him over the edge, so he sat down with a pen and some notecards. “I’m NOT addressing them,” he grumbled as he thanked Luke for the grow-your-own sea creatures kit. I should really be writing the note to Luke’s mom for the plethora of unidentifiable sea creatures that hatched in an aquarium of sorts in my kitchen, and now I am supposed to feed them crushed up pieces of carrot and lettuce when the provided food pellets are gone. The kit promises at least twenty of these creatures will hatch but only with the right water conditions and temperatures between 72 and 80 degrees. We keep the heat at 68, so hatching was somewhat of a miracle, and now I have more mouths to feed. That’s another story.

As Colin complained his way through more than twenty thank-you notes, he wondered aloud about how to spell “friend” when signing “your friend, Colin”, and he even wrote, “your relative, Colin” as he closed the thank you note to my sister. He used his sense of humor, cared about spelling, and chipped away at the list over two or three days. He fumbled his way through the gift checklist I had written as he opened the gifts, and then he drew a little box next to each friend’s name so he could check it off as he went. He learned that he wasn’t going to win the manners battle on this one, but he also became more and more independent with each note.

Colin wrote the notes because I forced him to; there is no debate there. I am just hoping that, over time, these bi-annual thank you note sessions (birthday and Christmas) will teach him to see the value of a handwritten note; one that is handwritten and takes thought and time to write, stamp, address, and mail, takes effort, and that’s how we know people really care.

My husband will fire off an email, maybe, to say thanks to a friend, and he scoffed at the personalized stationery (complete with manly golf ball design and hunter green border) that I bought for him four years ago. It is all still in the box. “I already thanked him in person when he gave it to me. Why do I need to write a note, too?” Because it shows more thought, that’s why.

Of course, technology has de-personalized the practice of writing notes and letters, but those of us who value handwriting, we writers, English teachers, and others, we aren’t a dying breed – just a rare one. In the words of Monty Python, not dead yet. I love emails as much as the next gal, but when I really want to convey thankful meaning to a friend, you can bet I go get the ink and paper.

In the days of Jane Austen’s England, and presumably in the TV series Downton Abbey, the post was delivered twice a day. Letters penned by friends, relatives, and colleagues were hand-delivered from person to person. No texts, no selfies sent between eighth graders, no tweets, but just timeless, handwritten thoughts to express one’s thanks, grief, love, and friendship. In addition to guiding my kids through the social politics of personal communication via modern technology, I will also teach my kids that more often than not, a handwritten note is just more personal, more meaningful. And when we take away the “personal” of the handwritten thank-you note, how long will it be before a person doesn’t thank a friend at all?

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