Growing up a little

To my mind, as a parent, there is no greater sense of accomplishment than seeing that your child has internalized one of the values you have worked so hard to instill in her.

I recently had an opportunity to see this in action in my teenaged daughter. The pride I felt was akin to that I felt years ago when she toddled away from me while taking her first steps. I felt my heart swell with the feeling that the hard work of parenting I had been laboring through was finally paying off as I saw a glimmer of the young woman she was becoming.

To understand what I’m talking about, you have to step back with me a few decades. My mother was incessant in making my brothers and I write thank you notes to friends and relatives when they had given us a gift or done something nice for us. I was expected to keep a box of stationary in my desk and whenever I received a gift, I was to write a thank you note to the gifter, ask my mother for their mailing address, acquire a stamp from her, and put the note into the mailbox.

If at any point, I was running low on stationary, and it looked like I wouldn’t have a ready supply on hand for future gifts or kindnesses, I was to tell my mother and soon we would make the trip to the book store where I would pick out and purchase more with my allowance. If a note was not forthcoming within a week of receiving the gift, my mother would consequence me with the removal of a privilege until I had written and mailed the note.

I remember vividly my grandmother calling me after I sent her one such note and telling me how much it meant to her to receive my handwritten note. She said that as a young lady, I was showing myself to be well-mannered and sophisticated by adhering to such niceties. She told me the stories of some of the more memorable thank you notes she had received and written as a young woman. I remember feeling a sense of history—like I was somehow connected to the ancestral women of my past, sitting at their writing desks penning gracious notes of thanks to others that had been gracious to them.

Fast forward a decade or so and I began teaching my own children the same value of showing gratitude for a kindness or gift by sending a thank you note. I know right? Turning into your mother is not necessarily the horror we always imagined it to be.

I know that may seem like an outdated practice with today’s modern communication technologies, but I internalized the lesson and I feel it is important to teach that same lesson to my own children. Not everyone values a quick email of thanks for a gift and especially, in my family, the grandmothers, great aunts, and older cousins still don’t have email, or computers, for that matter.

Additionally, there is something meaningful in the act of sitting down with your thoughts and manually penning a note of thanks. It forces you to sit quietly and meditate on why the gift or kindness was meaningful to you. It also teaches you the importance of going out of your way to be nice and gracious to someone—someone who went out of their way for you.

So, ever since my children were old enough to take a crayon in hand, we have sat down together after Christmas, birthdays, Kindergarten graduations, Easter and other occasions where friends and family might have thought it appropriate to give a gift and written thank you notes. I always involved my children in the process of putting the stamps on the envelopes and walking the completed notes to the mailbox. Their first notes started out as mere marks on the paper, which I “interpreted” with the appropriate words of thanks. Eventually, however, they evolved into actual notes with correct punctuation and adequate penmanship.

They pick out their stationary or thank you cards and keep them in their rooms. I pick up the tab as my children only get an allowance for good grades and those instances only come around during the school year and then, only two times a term. I remind them to write the notes and encourage them to address them, get a stamp from my stamp supply and walk the notes to the mailbox. If they have not written and mailed their notes in an acceptable time frame, I reprimand them and consequence them until they do so.

I have to admit that sometimes it is difficult to get them to comply. They, like many of my friends and their friends, believe it is an old-fashioned concept and believe that, in today’s world, a phone call should be sufficient. They also complain that their friends don’t have to write thank you notes, so why should I make them. I simply tell them that it is a sign of good manners and they will understand when they are older.

If they give me an especially hard time, I say to them, “When you are the mommy, you can let your kids call and say thank you and totally do away with the tradition of sending thank you notes. But right now, I’m the mommy and this is how we are doing things.”

Despite the pushback, I have stood my ground and insisted that my daughters observe this “old-fashioned” nicety.

And eventually they have begun to see the point I was trying to make. My mother-in-law called my daughters recently after receiving a thank you note for “just because it’s summer” cards with money in them that she had sent to them around the fourth of July. She told each one that she felt proud of the gracious and well-mannered women they were becoming and that she bragged to all her friends about how kind and thoughtful her granddaughters were. She told my girls that her friends expressed envy for the thank you notes she received because their grandchildren did not send them notes. She explained to the girls that she swelled with pride when she showed her friends the most recent notes she had received when they met for their weekly luncheon.

My youngest daughter confided in me that she felt really good about herself after her grandmother told her those things.

For once, I secretly offered thanks for my MIL!

Then it happened. Two days ago, my youngest, Cricket, came to me and asked for a stamp. I asked her why she needed a stamp and she showed me a thank you note that she had written. I was confused as I didn’t know of any gifts she had recently received. Then she told me something that simply blew my mind.

She had written a thank you note to the young man that had sold her the Xbox I helped her buy on eBay a few months ago. She purchased a package containing the console, several controllers, Kinect, and about 20 games. She said she got to thinking about it and she decided that it was really kind of him to give her such a great deal on a used Xbox that was in perfect working condition. She said she’d had a few months to play with it and it was great. She explained to me that she had played every game and not a single one had scratches on it and every controller worked perfectly. (Wait, she’s played every game since school let out, but she still hasn’t unpacked her backpack? But, I digress.)

She told me that he could have gotten much more money from selling it, but chose to accept the offer we made for what she now considered was too little money for such an outstanding package.

She told me that she felt that he had been kind and I’d always encouraged her to write a thank you note when someone did you a kindness. I told her that was indeed what I’d taught her and told her where to get the stamps. She addressed the note, using the return label from the package the Xbox arrived in. (She had torn off the label and saved it when she received the package—just in case it was a great Xbox and she wanted to write a note.) It made me feel humble when I realized that she’d had this in the back of her mind for a few months and still followed through when she thought it was appropriate.

I watched with pride as she walked to the mailbox and put the note inside. Then she lifted the flag and walked back to the house. When I ran up to her with a huge, silly grin on my face and swept her into a tremendous hug, she wanted to know why I was being so “weird.”

I explained to her my pride in her and she said, “Mom, why are you so surprised? You’ve been teaching me about thank you notes since I was a little kid. I just did what I was supposed to do.”

And there you have it—proof that all the teachings are not going in one ear and out the other. Proof that they do sometimes listen. Proof that my efforts have not been in vain. Proof that it is possible to mold the little monsters they start out as into something human, something thoughtful, something akin to what you imagined they would be at the end of the journey.

I felt pride in my daughter, yes—but it was mixed with something more. Something that had to do with the future and possibilities and letting go. It was like she was taking small steps away from me again, like she did so many years ago as a toddler. But this time, her steps were not tentative and unsure. This time her steps were sure-footed and determined. This time she was walking away from me into the future life of the young woman she was meant to be once she left me and moved on to her world of bigger and better things. She was taking those steps with the values I taught her firmly planted in her mind and I was happy to let her go just a bit that day.

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