Dilemmas: Do not belittle the bread-and-butter letter

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The art of writing thank-you letters is not dead. Indeed the art of writing letters about thank-you letters is also flourishing, if this week's post is anything to go by. More than 100 wrote - thank you very much. Most were apoplectic with horror at the idea that in every household by the end of Boxing Day, a pile of neatly written letters was not waiting for the post.

Some even sent examples of spidery bread-and-butter letters from toddlers to prove their point. Two children, 10-year- old Kate Nottidge of Cardiff and nine- year-old Tom Allen of King's Lynn, even wrote to wave their own flags in praise of the thank-you letter.

What prompted the response? Adrienne had written in, anxious because her nine- year-old's godmother had upset him by saying, jokingly, that he wouldn't get any more presents because he hadn't sent a thank-you note for her pounds 10 gift voucher. But Adrienne felt that the fact that she herself had thanked her over the phone was enough. Surely, she added, no one writes thank-you letters any more. Anyway, what should she or her son do now?

What do thank-you letters mean? Acknowledgement, obviously, and also gratitude - if someone's taken the trouble to give you a present, you should take the trouble to write. But Gordon MacIntyre of Co Down took a broader view. 'What is being offered is a relationship, and if a child does not reciprocate, then that relationship is being rejected.'

'Saying thank you properly is one of those small courtesies that are the lubricant of living successfully and peacefully with your fellows,' added Priscilla Wingate-Saul of Chiswick.

In view of this, most readers blamed not the boy but his mother. 'He should have been taught. It wasn't until I started giving presents bought with my own money that I realised how important thank-you letters were,' wrote 17-year-old Jessica. 'This year I bought a small toy for my four-year-old god-daughter, had no response and decided never to send her anything again.'

Meanwhile, Linda had this advice for Adrienne: 'Think how you would like your son to behave in 10 years' time and push him in the right direction while you still have the influence.'

Liz Steadman of Wingham, Kent, pointed out that times are changing. 'Modern communications are very different to, say, 20 years ago, with faxes, more phones and general mobility. But even if thank-you letters are outdated, good manners are not.' A phone call from a third party, she says, is simply not enough.

The only good thing that could be said for the mother was that she had picked such a sensible godparent for her son. As Kathleen Manning of Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, pointed out, 'By criticising her godson, Adrienne's friend has stepped actively into her true godparental role, indicating the lesson that her godson should have been taught by his parents.'

Several people wrote about how hurt they were this Christmas not to receive thank-you letters for their presents; they admired Adrienne's friend's guts for bringing up the subject. Mrs Hunt of Cheltenham recommended that anyone in the same situation should write a letter threatening to contact the post office 'since the letter or present was obviously not received'. In her case, this resulted in a thank-you letter by return of post.

Rosemary Rogers of Wetherby in Yorkshire tried sending a stamped addressed card with a sample thank you on it, 'with asterisks showing where to sign and delete as applicable'. It didn't work. And Colin Brendan of Bradford wrote: 'My sister once sent a child thank-you notelets as a present and still didn't hear a squeak]'

Pam Lewis of south-east London was put out to find her god-daughter had left a thank-you message on her answering machine. And my heart bled for Jonathan Davis of Hornsey Vale, north London, who felt understandably hurt when he received a thank-you letter that was 'no more than a kind of receipt, printed on a computer and crudely cut into a thin strip of paper. They didn't even sign it themselves'.

But what about Adrienne and her particular problem? It was generally agreed that it wasn't too late for the boy to write. Mrs Harrison of Holt, in Norfolk, suggested he buy something with the money and then write to tell his godmother how pleased he is with it. Charlotte Perry of Balham, south London, thought he should make a present for his godmother and send it to her out of the blue, to show he was thinking of her. Christopher Gosland of Bristol went so far as to suggest Adrienne 'ring up and apologise to her friend because she, Adrienne, has failed to teach her son good manners'.

A letter at another time in the year, a postcard from abroad, or a surprise phone call on her birthday from the godson - any of these could smooth over the rift and even induce another present. And next year, a proper thank-you letter is essential - written, of course, on Boxing Day.

Dear Virginia,

My son is 14, but is physically and intellectually extremely mature. I've just been told by the parents of one of his friends that he is having sex with a 14-year-old girl in the group he hangs out with. My husband and I have always been open with our son, but find ourselves unable to bring it up. If it is true that so many teenagers have under-age sexual relationships, how do their parents cope, practically and emotionally? Would the girl's parents thank me or loathe me for approaching them? I feel they ought to know, but if I tell I risk breaking up my son's friends. Have your readers any advice?

Yours, Dilly

Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB (fax 071-956-1739), to arrive by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with other readers, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.

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