Marilyn Heins

Portrait of Marilyn Heins

Tammie Graves / Arizona Daily Star

“Our two teen age grandsons and their successful parents live far away from us. The boys are in private school, heading for college, involved in sports, do community projects through their church. We appreciate that the whole family is busy and are proud of them.

The problem?

The boys never acknowledge birthday and other gifts. We asked our son about it once and he said everyone is so busy. They are always going to be busy. I believe that is the nature of productive people but somehow they must learn how to manage demands on them with the voluntary thoughtfulness of society. We told the boys who have cell phones that all they have to do is pick up the phone and they said, ‘yeah sure,’ but have not called though the gifts continue. P.S. I just reread letters from my children to my mother who kept them until she died. My grandsons were deprived of this.”

I like your expression, “voluntary thoughtfulness of society.” I understand the busyness of successful people and striving students. I have been there. But we are all part of society that runs better when we find the time to be civil to each other. Alas we live in un-civil times.

Manners are not trivial; they help keep us from hurting each other. Yes, our world is pretty casual these days but manners are still both needed and required. Those who fail to respond to a teacher, boss, or prospective client will not be successful even in today’s casual world.

Parents, and also grandparents, should pay attention to children’s manners. Children imitate us so family grownups should model good manners from day one and gently remind and reinforce when needed. Gently means you take the child aside, it is not good manners to embarrass a child in front of others.

After learning basic manners children also need to learn what I call “Advanced Manners” so they become able to live anyplace in our complex world. Advanced manners are table manners, telephone manners, and writing manners which include thank-you notes.

I admit I am hopelessly old-fashioned. I firmly believe that responding to grandparent’s gifts is essential. Not just to avoid hurting the feelings of Grandma and Grandpa but to prepare the children for the social world.

The world of successful people is competitive. Children need to know how to navigate this world. To make a good impression you always say thank you. Even in today’s world every gift should be acknowledged.

Teach children that every gift deserves a thank-you note. From the time children can print their name they should sign the note the parent writes. Strict Dr. Heins advocates that by middle school children should write the note themselves. In our house the rule was write the note before you use the gifts. (It’s OK , my children still speak to me!)

Many of us who live far from our grandchildren want to know whether the gift arrived and arrived in good condition before we pay the credit card bill.

The grandmother who wrote today’s email letter told her grandkids they could call to thank her. Even Dr. Heins now accepts calls or texts of thanks in place of hand-written notes. My college-age grandkids only use emails for school; they communicate by text. My five-year-old grandson calls to say thank you for a gift. He also calls when he feels sick or has had even the slightest injury because he knows I am a pediatrician; the one who never gives him shots, that’s the other lady doctor.

Your grandson’s parents should not have dropped the ball. Once or twice a year is not too much for even busy parents to remind their kids about thank you manners. Sadly, whenever we grandparents criticize, or imply criticism, our grown children default to little kiddie mode. They feel chastised by your remarks. Unlike at work when we rush to do what the boss says, we resent being bossed by a parent in our own home.

Now comes the hard-to-take advice for many grandparents. The way you approach your grown child in his or her home makes a big difference, even though deep inside we may think we have a right to say what we feel to our own offspring.

In Heins-sight this is what I suggest you might have done. Pick a good moment when you and your son are alone. Have one or two of his letters to Grandma in your hand. “Look what I found the other day. You wrote so well when you were ten!” Let it sink in. “Too bad your boys don’t have this opportunity because the world has changed and you are not as strict as I was about a thank-you note. Even stodgy old me would accept a phone call or text!”

Would it work? Possibly. If not, tell each boy separately you worry if your gift has arrived safely and undamaged so please let you know by phone or text. In your note when you send the next gift say you worry about the gift arriving in time and in good shape so please let you know.

If this doesn’t work you can say in your next note that this will be the last gift if you don’t get a response. Draconian? Yes but better Grandma takes a firm stand than the boss.

My readers know I am pretty modern and relaxed about many things. Why am I so fussy about a silly old thank you note?

Of course I hope my children and grandchildren will be successful in the eyes of the world. But I have an old-fashioned definition of success.

I want my children and grandchildren, as well as yours, to be civil and kind and thoughtful human beings. I want the world to be filled with these values.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, great-step grandparent, and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your questions about parenting throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood! Email info@ParentKidsRight.com.