In This New Year, Is It Time To Nix The Thank-You Letter?

Jan 4, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2015 10:09 pm

Now that the holidays are over, another season has arrived. It's time for children to put pen to paper and scratch out thank you letters — all under the watchful eye of their parents.

In a recent piece for The Guardian, Peter Ormerod argues that it's time to do away with that ritual. He writes that thank you letters "represent arguably the first instance in our lives when insincerity is officially sanctioned, which is particularly sad given that the best thing about children is their honesty."

He tells NPR's Arun Rath that he's not at all against gratitude. His argument has more to do with the spirit of the thing. "It's really because gratitude is so important to me. I don't, however, think that forcing children to write what's often quite formulaic letters — I don't think that's necessarily the best way of helping children develop gratitude."

Instead, he thinks the emphasis should be on getting kids to feel and experience gratitude, rather than just make a show of it. And once they feel it, he says, they can express it in fun or creative ways, "ways that feel much less like a chore." That could involve drawing pictures, taking photos or baking. Ormerod says he's even written songs for people.

Another common argument for the thank-you letter is that it's one of the last ways for children to stay connected to the physical world — actually putting pen to paper and letter into mailbox. Ormerod says, "There is something nice about that and, of course, if the children really want to write letters and put their heart into them that's fine."

But he says that wasn't the case when he was growing up.

"It was something sort of tacked on after Christmas or after birthdays and it was 'Oh no, I've got to do that,' " Ormerod recalls, while noting that he doesn't blame his parents for doing what they'd been brought up to do. "I don't think I really appreciated that people had taken the time to think of me and to buy something for me."

A lot of the commenters on his piece in The Guardian shared similar stories of childhood thank-you-letter dread. But some of the most fascinating comments for Ormerod came from older people who say they've actually told family members not to send thank-you notes because they know they're annoying to write. They assume, those commenters say, that their family members are appreciative.

Ormerod does acknowledge that, for now, he's arguing from the perspective of a former child: He's not a parent. "Perhaps I'd feel a bit differently," he says. "I can appreciate there may well be some parental peer pressure. So I hold up my hands if I turn out to be a massive hypocrite on this one."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now that the holidays are over, another season has arrived. 'Tis the time for children to put pen to paper and scratch out thank you letters under the watchful eye of their parents. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Peter Ormerod writes that it's time to do away with that tradition. Peter Ormerod joins me from his home in Leamington Spa, England. Welcome to the program.

PETER ORMEROD: Thank you very much, Arun.

RATH: So first give us your bid here. Why do you think parents should stop making their kids do this?

ORMEROD: It's really because gratitude is so important to me. I don't however think that forcing children to write what are often quite formulaic letters - I don't think that that's necessarily the best way of helping children develop gratitude.

RATH: Peter, I'm a parent, and it's going to be obvious where I stand on this. I think formulas are bad, but I think it's good to make kids express gratitude.

ORMEROD: I see where you're coming from. I think it's better to get kids to feel gratitude and experience gratitude rather more first. And that can be expressed in a fun way and in a creative way I think. So it could involve something like, you know, drawing pictures. It could involve taking photos. It could involve baking cakes. They could even write little songs for people. I've done that for a couple of people - ways that feel much less like a chore.

RATH: OK, so we agree that you should do something at least.

ORMEROD: Yeah.

RATH: Here's another argument though I'd make for the written note and that's that, you know, my wife and I were talking about this, so much these days is electronic. This is maybe the last thing where kids are actually involved in writing things out by hand and sending them in the mail. There's something nice about that old-school quality.

ORMEROD: There is. There is something nice about that, and, of course, if your children really want to write letters and put their heart into, then that's fine. However, in my experience and evidently in the experience of quite a few people who read my piece in The Guardian, that isn't how you feel when you're writing them.

RATH: So it sounds like you have some unpleasant memories about being compelled to write letters like this when you were a kid.

ORMEROD: Yeah, I have. I mean, I don't really want to blame my parents, because it wasn't their fault. It was what they were brought up doing. But it was something sort of tacked on after Christmas or after birthdays, and it was always oh, now I've got to do that. I don't think that I really appreciated that people had taken the time to think of me and to buy something for me.

RATH: Yeah, but that note meant so much to Auntie Beryl (ph).

ORMEROD: Perhaps so, but the other things might well have meant a lot to Auntie Beryl, too. And actually, one of the fascinating things reading the comments under my Guardian piece - the number of older people, actually, who say, you know, I've actually told my nieces and nephews and grandchildren not to send me thank you letters, because I know that it's a bit of a slog to do them, and I take their appreciation and their gratitude for granted.

RATH: Before I let you go, I've got to ask you, do you have any kids of your own yet?

ORMEROD: I'm afraid I haven't. No, I haven't. And perhaps I'd feel a bit differently. I can appreciate there may well be some parental peer pressure, so I hold it in my hands if I turn out to be a massive hypocrite on this one.

RATH: Journalist Peter Ormerod contributes to The Guardian. Peter, it was great talking with you. You can leave now.

ORMEROD: Thank you, Arun.

RATH: No, I'm just kidding. Thank you. Thank you. That was rude. Great talking with you.

ORMEROD: (Laughter) Good talking with you as well, Arun. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

DIDO: (Singing) And I want to thank you for giving me the best day of my life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.