Thursday, July 19, 2007

Automating Thank-you-notes

thank you note box lid with sample inside
Our family has a post-birthday-party thank-you-note policy that works well for us.

In the beginning, much effort and consistency was required on my part. Now, over a decade later, the system is automatic and self-policing. With a little preparation and organization, the children eagerly write and track their notes the day of the party, without supervision or nagging.

This is what we do:

Preparation: (Mom's responsibility)

When I make the party invitations, I enter the guests' names, addresses, telephone numbers, and parents' names on the computer in a database specific to the Birthday Kid (BK). This database is often recycled from the previous year, as the data doesn't change much from year to year.

This data is used to:

  1. name, mailing address ~ print the guests' address on the invitations

  2. name, phone number, parents' names ~ make an R.s.v.p. list to post on the refrigerator, for checking off guests names as they reply to the invitation

  3. name ~ create name-tags at the birthday party. We have fun with these, decorating them with clip-art and laminating business cards . Then we attach a pin-back. The kids love them, and the other adults at the party don't struggle to remember the guests' names. We pin these on the guests when they arrive, just after we relive them of their coat and after they have relinquished their gift for the BK.

  4. name ~ create name label sheets. I print 8-10 copies of the mailing label sheets with the guests' names.

    • When the guests arrive, we stick a label on the incoming birthday gift. This has saved us numerous times, when the child-made card is difficult to read, when the cards get separated from the gift, and when there are 5 Sarahs and they all signed only their first names.

    • Each craft activity gets a label as it is completed.

    • When we use a pinata, each child receives a labeled plastic baggie to hold her loot. This prevents nutritional meltdown and a living room full of candy wrappers.

    • If child-specific goodie bags are necessary (usually due to food allergies), they can be labeled.

    • At least one of the name label sheets should be saved for the thank-you-note writing process.
  5. name, address ~ create a sheet of address labels and save for the post party thank-you-note writing process.

Just before the party, place the following items near the front door:
  • a large laundry basket
  • the stack of name label sheets
  • the name-tags

At the party: (Shared responsibility)

As each child arrives and is welcomed:
  • Take the guest's coat.
  • Place the child's name label on the gift and place it in the laundry basket.
  • Pin the name-tags on the child's shirt.
  • Guide the guest to the first party activity.

After the Party: (Birthday Kid's responsibility, with parental review as the last step)

This part is magic. Once the kids are trained in this process, it happens automatically. It might take a birthday or two of investment in enforcement to get this going, but the dividends pay off forever after.

Policy rules:

  1. No gift may be used until all of the thank you notes are written. This is most important. If it takes a week (it won't), then every gift is quarantined until it's done. No exceptions.
  2. No gift may be unwrapped until the previous gift's note is written. One gift at a time. Curiosity is not an excuse. Special considerations have been made for a live and present waiting grandparent. Sometimes.
  3. All notes are to be made available for parental review. All notes are subject to rewriting at the whim of the reviewing parent.
  4. Done is good. While it is wonderful to write unique notes for each guest, this is not required. It is okay to use the same format (basically a form letter) for most of the notes. We describe the form letter as suggested wording. Obsessing is discouraged.
  5. The suggested format is the minimum required. We remind the kids that as they get older, they will likely have more to say, or more original wording.

Thank-you-note writing process:

  1. Clear off the dining room table.
  2. Set up the note-writing supplies on the table:
    • Stationery
    • Pens
    • Postage stamps
    • The return address label sheet of the guest list
    • A blank sheet of paper, to become the Gift Record
    • The sheet of name labels
  3. Bring the laundry basket to the dining room.
  4. Seat the Birthday Kid (BK) at the table.
  5. One at a time, for each gift
    • Bring the gift to the BK.
    • Take the name label that corresponds to the gift's giver, and place it on the Gift Record. Matching the label that was placed on the gift at the party will help keep track of which of the five Sarahs gave which gift.
    • Unwrap the gift.
    • On the Gift Record, next to the giver's name, write a short description of the gift. This can be a single word, or a phrase. It should be descriptive enough to define the gift. "Book" is insufficient. "Duck book" might be acceptable for a first grader. "Necklace" is probably fine, unless twelve were received. "Game" is bad. "Monopoly" is just right.
    • Write the note. As an aide, we keep a sample/form letter taped to the inside cover of each child's box of stationery. (A sample is shown in the picture at the top of this article.)

      Writing the sample on the same size paper as the child will use helps the BK gauge the size of the handwriting. It helps define parental expectations.
    • Place the note in the 'done' pile, awaiting parental review.
    • Place the unwrapped gift at the other end of the dining room table, and proceed to the next gift.
  6. When the previous step is complete, the BK calls the parent into the dining room. Using the Gift Record as guide, the parent reviews the notes. If any need to be rewritten, they are set aside. The parent (or the BK, depending on age/ability) attaches the corresponding return address labels and postage stamps to the envelopes.
  7. Mail the notes, and delight in being DONE.
  8. The Birthday Kid is allowed to choose a couple of gifts to play with. The remainder are set aside, to be doled over time, in order to prevent acquisition overload.

If Rule 1 is enforced well, the child will BEG to write the notes as soon as the party is over. It will take extraordinary circumstances for the whole list to require a second day to complete.

In our house, all the siblings volunteer to help the BK complete the tasks, because they are eager to have the new toys brought into rotation. When you get to this stage, don't fight the greed, but use it to your advantage. Suggest jobs for the siblings such as removing discarded wrapping paper.

A pile of unwrapped gifts has unique motivational power. Don't waste it!

May we all give and receive many reasons to be thankful, and may we continue to feel and express our gratitude to those we love.

11 comments, so far. Add yours now!

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socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Omg wow you are way too organized and good please show me your ways:)

Orthonomics said...

I just posted about whether or not thank you cards are a thing of the past just lack week as I've noticed too few people are writing them (although I'm not keeping count). I can see this is a popular topic with the Mommies.

My mother always made me sit down the next day and get the task done. I wish more people insisted on it.

Thank you for some great tips.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you have it down to a science! I have to admit that my wife has gotten me into the habit of writing thank you cards. It's not the sort of thing that our family did when I was young. Good for you for getting your kids into the habit now!

Jack Steiner said...

That is a pretty good system.

RaggedyMom said...

What a great system you have in place!

Anonymous said...

Why don't your kids get to open their presents at the party? Do you have to announce that to the kids? Usually it's cake and gifts after all the other activities are over.

Juggling Frogs said...

Thank you, everyone. It took a couple of years to get it down to an automated system, but now it requires almost no effort or nagging from the parents. The kids literally beg to write their notes, and they help each other get it done.


It is our strong family preference not to have present-opening at the party.

Often, during party planning and preparation, we perform the following ritual:

I ask my kids, "Who is this party for?"
They respond, "The GUESTS!"

If they make the mistake of saying "It's for ME!", I tell them, "No, it's for the guests. Every party is for the guests. We are inviting them as a celebration of YOUR birthday, but every party is about the guests.

"If we want to celebrate how wonderful YOU are, we can do that privately at home. When we invite others, they are our guests. You are the Host of Honor [as opposed to Guest of Honor], and your job is to help the guest have a great time in celebration of your birthday."

Some children come without presents either because the parents were too busy (and plan to get one later) or because someone forgot, or .... Some children come with very elaborate presents, most likely because we are very close with the child's family. Opening the gifts publicly is rife with opportunity for embarrassing someone.

And it's not entertaining. Not for the host, and not for the guests.

The Birthday Kid has to restrain herself from "Oh. We have three of those..." or "I thought I told you I *hate* Barbie..." or from uneven enthusiasm, gushing over one present, then politely thanking the next person with less passion.

The guests must watch another child receive a ridiculous bounty, trying not to be jealous or bored or embarrassed or pushy or...

The party is about the guests, not the presents. The guests' entertainment is designed to entertain the guests. The presents are appreciated appropriately and privately, after the event, via the thank-you-notes.

This is how we do it. Nobody has ever complained (or even mentioned) that we have omitted public present-opening.

If we omitted the birthday cake, however, THAT someone would notice...

Juggling Frogs said...

...In fact, we feel so strongly about this, that if a child stays longer (for whatever reason) than the party, we don't allow any notes to be written (and therefore no presents to be opened) until that child leaves.

This is true, even if it means that the gifts are not opened until the next day.

The gifts are opened in private. Period.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to put this on my website. Great great system. Usually parties are a hectic disaster before, during and after. Not so in your house and I'm glad to see it!

Juggling Frogs said...


Wow, thank you! I'd be honored to have your site link here. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Just amazing. I hope it's not too late to introduce this system. I really love it.

We too refrain from opening gifts at the party. We have fallen into a practice of opening them at the family-only "after party" but I'm not so thrilled with that approach either.

Would love to get my husband to do this too!! He hasn't written ONE SINGLE TY NOTE since BEFORE we were married -- 12 and 1/2 years ago!!!

If you liked this article, congratulations! You have great taste. Please brew yourself a cup of coffee.
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