Lagging thanks for gifts stirs family tensions

June 21, 2011

Q. I’ve kept quiet about it, but my feelings have been hurt by members of my own family. When I gave presents to two relatives, it took months for them to thank me. This makes me ask myself, “Why did I bother?”

I sent a $200 check — a baby gift to a nephew’s child — and it was cashed immediately, but it took four months for the parents to thank me.

I also sent clothes overseas to my granddaughter for her birthday — as well as a tuition check — and it took eight months for her to acknowledge it.

I like to give presents to my family, but they don’t seem to appreciate the hard work I do so I can earn enough money to buy those gifts or send those checks, nor do they understand the caring and the love that are given with each and every present.

Their slow response makes me wonder about their behavior — and what I should do about it.


A. You certainly do deserve a note, an e-mail or a phone call of thanks, but you won’t always get it from new parents, who are too busy with the baby — and too busy thinking about the baby — to mind their manners, and you probably won’t get it from people younger than 18 because they are too busy thinking about themselves.

Before your nephew had a child, he and his wife had undoubtedly read a stack of parenting books and were sure that they could feed, bathe and change their baby quickly and easily, that they would all sleep for long stretches and that they would immediately thank anyone who gave them a baby present, just as they thanked their friends who gave them presents at their baby shower.

And then the baby came — and a big dose of reality, too. As much as your nephew and his wife wanted to take their naps and write their notes, they were either too busy caring for their child or too besotted by him to pay attention to anything else. Once a baby stares into his parents’ eyes in the delivery room and wraps his tiny hand around one of their fingers, they are mesmerized.

Children — especially teenagers — are mesmerized, too, not by babies but by themselves. Adolescents become extremely self-focused because they’re trying to figure out who they are and to become the people nature meant them to be. This is a time-consuming job, and unless a grown-up is cracking the etiquette whip, they’ll put thank-you notes at the bottom of their to-do list.

It will help you empathize with the members of your family if you know what they’re going through, and it will help them know what you’re going through if you tell them about it. They’re not mind readers.

It’s time to send an e-mail to all the relatives to whom you’ve sent presents in the past few years — whether they have thanked you for them or not — and tell them that you need to hear from them when they receive a gift from you. And then tell them that you work hard to pay for the presents you buy, that you spend a fair amount of time and trouble choosing them and that your feelings are hurt because some people don’t thank you for them right away or at all.

Tell them that this is upsetting to you because you never know whether your gift has gotten there — unless you’ve sent a check and know that it’s been cashed. Tell them you don’t know whether to call them to see whether your present arrived, ask the post office to track it down or keep your mouth shut and hope that it got there and that they liked what you sent.

The reactions to your e-mail, of course, will vary. Some of your relatives will decide that you’re being foolish, old-fashioned or eccentric; some will be embarrassed. All of them will feel guilty to some degree, because they probably won’t remember whether they’ve always thanked you for your gifts. And that’s okay. A little guilt on their part will encourage them to write their thank-you notes, especially if you tuck a blank sheet of paper and a stamped envelope addressed to you with every gift you send.

It might embarrass you to do and say these things, but it’s better than saying nothing. That would only make your hurt fester and in time could affect your relationship with the people you love best.

Questions? E-mail Marguerite Kelly.

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