Thursday, November 22, 2012

Say Thank You

Have you ever given a stranger's child a gift? Maybe a colleague invited you to their son's birthday party, or Bar Mitzvah, or Christmas at their place, or, you know, whatever. Say this child is young (so maybe Bar Mitzvah doesn't apply), younger than eight. You hand the child a gift-wrapped box or one of those feisty gift bags with tissue paper arranged just so, and the child's eyes go a little wider, their face a little seriouser. They take your offering somewhat solemnly.

And their mother says, "Say thank you, Robbie"--or Jenny, or Mindy, or whatever.

[At least that's the way it was when I was growing up. Nowadays parents seem oblivious to their kids' manners.]

Here's the lesson. It's not that the child isn't appreciative of your gift. He--or she--is dying to open it, to see what it is. Their heart is racing, adrenaline is flowing, endorphins are kicking in. They can't wait.

Mom, on the other hand, is all about social mores. "Say thank you."

So the kid does, kind of halfheartedly, or maybe a bit shyly if they're older. They'll feel a little embarrassed for the greed they feel, for the desire to get it over with and tear the damn thing open. And you'll nod, say they're very welcome and you hope they enjoy the toy--or book, or sweater, or whatever. You'll turn back to the mom, release the kid to the freedom of shredding paper and ribbons and plastic wrap and cardboard.

Aren't we all like that? Yeah, even the grown-ups? We resent the "say thank you", the obligation to pause in our enjoyment of gifts. Gifts like life. Like health, or family, or an exotic bird chirping on our windowsill, a tiny flower blooming among the weeds.

I don't think the child is wrong. That carpe diem of tearing gifts open, of getting excited over wrapping, over ribbons, is a wonderful thing. But I think Mom's lesson is pretty powerful. "Say thank you." Not because it's socially required, not because the gift-giver deserves the thanks, although they certainly do. I think it's important to say thank you because that pause of contemplation gives the gift depth.

In the hedonism of "a gift! a gift! a gift!", we forget to appreciate the moment. Moments pass so quickly. Saying thank you is a nod, however brief, to acknowledge it. Before it's gone.

Happy Thanksgiving, USA.


  1. Oh I like that, and I definitely understand it from my own experience. I'm the kind of person who comes in running, scorched with thirst, lips cracked and mouth dry, and has to create the perfect glass of perfectly chilled water and get all distractions out of the way before she finally dives into that refreshing coolness.
    So yeah... pausing before satisfying a curiosity or enjoying the little perks of life is very much a way to internalize the moment and savor the anticipation. Most of the time, that feeling's better than the reward anyway. :)

  2. Yes, very very powerful.. saying thanks. All kids (and adults) should learn to take a moment and be thankful. But when should that moment be? I don't believe the moment should be forced, especially not because of some social rule.

    A few years ago I went through the list of gifts I apparently received at my baptism. I sent out silent thank yous to people I didn't know.

    Thanks will be given when they are truly felt and as a parent one can surely find other ways to help a child to that moment. I, as the adult gift-giver, will give the child that chance.

  3. Well said, er, written. I actually don't mind if a kid thanks me or not for a gift. I just hope they enjoy the thing. What's really cool is when the 'thank-you' comes spontaneously out of their mouths once they see what the gift is. But I love the point you've made here. I certainly am guilty of rushing through my day without thanks for the little things.


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