You can judge the success of parenting well before the children are old enough to get into Harvard or the local penitentiary. Well-raised kids write prompt, thoughtful thank-you notes.

K and I have about 16 nieces and nephews. And twice a year — once on their birthdays and once again at Christmas time — we give them presents. Most of them, I’m happy to report, send thank-you notes. Some are better than others.

A good thank-you note has the following characteristics:

  • It is on stationery, not scrap paper.
  • It’s handwritten, not typewritten.
  • It mentions the present by name.
  • It says something specific about it.
  • It includes the words “thank you.”

Here’s a good example:

Dear Uncle M and Aunt K,

Thank you so much for the talking watch. It is so cool. I also love the color pink. I can’t wait to wear it at school. I got a lot of things this Christmas that I could have guessed, but when I saw the box, I had no idea what it was. I also love the box that the watch came in. I miss you guys a lot and I hope we can see you soon.

Sincerely,

V

The note doesn’t have to be very long. In fact, it can be as short as two sentences. Like this one:

Dear Uncle M and Aunt K,

Thank

you so much for the very warm and very fuzzy scarf. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s.

Love,

E

Or how about this three-sentence wonder:

Dear Uncle M and Aunt K,

Muchas gracias for the gift. Too bad it doesn’t fit. But thank you for thinking of me.

J

In this case, a little parental editing might have helped — but the child gets an A+ for sincerity.

After the holidays, I took two of my teenage nieces for a shopping spree. This was in addition to their Christmas bounty. Each child was spoiled to the tune of $500. So far, I’ve received one charming thank-you note. I’m waiting, hoping, for the other.

Good thank-you letters demonstrate characteristics we all want our children to have — thoughtfulness, consideration, and gratitude. They also reflect well on the parents. It’s not an accident that the letters we receive from the parents of E and V are just as full of good will and social grace.

Which brings me to the point of today’s message: Manners matter. In fact, good manners are essential to a civil society.

There is a philosophical stupidity that is rampant today — a theory that what a person is can be different from what he does. “Yes, he abuses his employees, neglects his children, and cheats his partners, but deep down inside he’s really a nice guy.”

Wrong.

How you act is what you are. It is certainly possible for a generally reprehensible person to have moments of goodness, but that doesn’t make him essentially good. You can claim to be essentially good when your natural instinct is to do and be good, not to do so only when you are down and out or have a rare transcendent moment.

If you want to be a good parent, you have to believe that the behavior of your children matters. And if you believe that, you must teach them — no, train them — to be mannerly. Writing good thank-you notes is a great way to start.

By the way, everything I’ve said about manners and my specific recommendations about writing thank-you notes applies to adults too. If you want to be thought of as a considerate, thoughtful businessperson — someone capable of giving and receiving gratitude –you should develop the habit of writing effective, personal thank-you notes.

If you are not writing personal notes to friends and colleagues now, you are missing an opportunity to strengthen important relationships. Personal notes to people you don’t know, but admire, are good for network building. I try to write at least one personal note each week. Sometimes, it’s to tell someone how much I appreciate their work. Sometimes, it’s a thank you. When I first began this as a habit (about five years ago), I was astonished at the reaction I got. People were shocked and often touched.

The effect of personal, handwritten notes will only become stronger as e-mail correspondence becomes more common.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.