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Learning Life Skills

A timely thank you is just the very beginning of what we all need to know to get through life gracefully.

The manila envelope that came in the mail contained 27 dutiful thank you letters from 9 and 10-year-olds. As you might expect, they were enormously entertaining.

In response to a broadcast plea from our town’s impoverished school system I sent a $500 donation earmarked for my granddaughter’s 4th grade class room. The students were then given the assignment of writing a formal thank you. Written on ruled notebook paper, some in pencil and some in ballpoint with varying degrees of penmanship, grammar and elegance of expression, they all basically conveyed the same message.

Each letter expressly thanked me for the unexpected donation and each letter told me about the class discussion on how to spend the windfall. Each contained the writer’s acquisition preference (a field trip, books for their library, iPods for all, a pizza party and various types of class pets from an aquarium to a pot-bellied pig). Some were signed formally and some signed his or her relationship to my granddaughter. Among the “yours truly’s”, “your friend” and “Natasha’s friend” there were actually two signed “Natasha’s mortal enemy”! My granddaughter assured me they were joking. The cover letter to the students’ writings was written by their home room teacher, also on lined notebook paper and sporting many exclamation points.

Aside from the entertainment value the letters brought me and my family — I received more than my money’s worth — I was extremely gratified to see that learning a social grace was included in the children’s lessons. My daughter has passed on to her own daughter the childhood dictum that you may not eat it, wear it, use it or play with it until you have written a thank you note to its donor for any present received. Now, if only more social skills and communication techniques were expressly being taught in lower schools the world would be a great deal less mean and bruising.

To this fuddy duddy’s way of thinking a texted “TX” (which to me is the abbreviation for Therapist and not Thanks) is insufficient appreciation for a present. And “Family Life” or “Life Skills” classes that teach about sperm and ova or sewing, cooking and wood working basics do not ready a young person for real life in or out of the family home. They are but the barest beginnings in preparing one to live in the world of other people.

Where are the courses in asking for what you want, setting personal boundaries, saying no politely but firmly, negotiating a friendship, accepting rejection gracefully? These are the real life skills I see sadly lacking in the individuals who seek my counsel in therapy. How to compose (and the necessity of writing) an interesting and graceful thank you letter is a good beginning but we have much much further to go in preparing our young.

(reprinted from Psychology Today)

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