(From left) Drew Himmelstein's husband, Aaron, and their sons, Harvey and Nate. (Photo/Himmelstein)
(From left) Drew Himmelstein's husband, Aaron, and their sons, Harvey and Nate. (Photo/Himmelstein)

Final column: How my kids learned to say ‘thank you’ — and mean it

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“Say thank you!”

This reminder rolls off my lips on an auto-loop as a parent, but never more so than at this time of year. The seasonal kickoff is during Halloween trick-or-treating, when the kids are buzzed and overstimulated, and we trail behind them from house to house, reminding them to be polite. And it picks up steam during the winter holidays, when treats and gifts are offered regularly by friends, teachers, neighbors and family members.

My kids are pretty polite, usually. At least, when they’re out in the world around other people, which is where it really matters. They’re sweet and considerate, and they like to do things for other people. A teacher once told me one of my children was “the most polite person I think I’ve ever met.” I kvelled.

But there’s a difference between a sweet and considerate nature and being able to perform on cue. And sometimes that’s what thank yous are: a performance, for the benefit of the adults, a line to be spoken at certain scripted moments.

This year for Hanukkah, we decided not to dole out presents over eight nights. I know it works well for some families, but we tried it last year, and it didn’t work for us. We were still observing a pretty strict Covid isolation, so our only celebrations were at home with the four members of our household.

Figuring out how to distribute the gifts (from grandparents, aunts, and my husband and me) to our kids equally so that all eight nights were covered was a logistical challenge that I am not well suited for. And we found that when our kids were primed to receive a gift every night, they seemed less excited and more entitled. Sometimes they weren’t sufficiently thrilled by the gift they received; they were just disappointed.

It was not the mood I was going for.

This year, we trimmed it down to just two nights of gifts at the end of Hanukkah. The kids were excited to light their own menorahs and play dreidel and eat gelt all the way through the week, and didn’t pester us about presents at all.

When the presents came, they were a cornucopia rather than a steady drip.

Thanks to vaccines (my kids, 5 and 9, have now had both doses!), we were able to gather in person with their grandparents to exchange gifts face-to-face. And when we did, the same pattern happened over and over. Someone would hand my kids a gift, they would open it and then examine it silently, paying no attention to anyone else in the room. To the adults, the lack of a reaction felt uncomfortable, verging on ungrateful. So we prompted them: “Say thank you!”

And they did, every time, enthusiastically. And everyone was happy and all was well.

The next night, alone at home, we gave the kids the rest of their gifts: from us and from family members far away who had sent to our home. We didn’t prompt them to say thank you. And something wonderful happened.

The kids opened the gifts and took their time to look them over and figure out what they were. And then, on their own, they got excited about them. We gave Nate, 9, who is a vegetarian and has just started cooking on his own, “The Forest Feast for Kids,” a brightly photographed vegetarian cookbook. He paged through it silently, then he looked up at us and excitedly said, “thank you!” and jumped into our arms. Harvey, 5, got “Hi, Jack!” and “Jack at Bat,” two early-reader books by Mac Barnett. “Thank you!” he shouted, and kissed my hands.

Sometimes, kids — or, really, people of all ages — just need a minute to take things in. Even though it’s socially expected, they might not be ready to parrot out their thank you instantly upon receiving something new. Even though they are as grateful as can be.

I’ve been sharing my adventures with my children in J. since my oldest was 2, but it’s time for me to put this column to bed for a while. Thanks so much for coming along for the ride.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.