How do you get children to write thank-you letters?

Well, how do you get children to do anything?Miss Manners was once taken to task (and quite properly, too) for expressing exasperation that so many criminal parents seem able to force their children to commit unnatural and disgusting acts, while ordinary parents can't even get their children to say "thank you." We should not joke about degradation that defies all standards of civilized behavior.

Therefore, Miss Manners is the first to complain that the sin of ingratitude is being treated lightly. Gratitude and generosity must be firmly paired, so that we are always kept sensible of the human interdependence that underlies the premise of civilization.

Aspiring moral philosophers who argue that goodness is only goodness when it is indifferent to indifference should be congratulated for their thoughtfulness and sat firmly down with paper and pen. When they are finished writing all letters due, they may be invited to continue the debate by considering how a humble and saintly giver, who seeks no reward on earth, is to know whether his or her offering was welcome. Persisting in annoying people with overtures they ignore surely cannot be construed as a virtue.

Yet the greedy and/or childish often succeed in worrying the good. "I know that God loves a cheerful giver," writes a Gentle Reader, who sends "very nice gifts, by registered mail" to a friend's children every year. "But every year I get upset when I never receive a thank-you note or Christmas card from them."

Miss Manners loves a cheerful giver, too, but not a foolish one. To continue to throw presents out into the void is silly; if the presents were received (as the G.R. knows from having registered them) without producing cries of delight, she may assume that they were a nuisance and that the kindest thing she can do is to cease to trouble these people with them.

"I know that you would never do anything so crass as promote good manners as a way to financial gain," another Gentle Reader writes Miss Manners, to whom she then offers the following account:

"My husband and I have always encouraged our children to write their thank-you notes early and to remember birthdays and holidays with a letter as well. Commercial cards were never sent with only a signature. My daughter went on to outshine me, faithfully remembering her aunts and uncles.

"Recently, the most elderly of these died and among her papers were H.'s notes. Later, we found that the aunt had remembered her most generously, which of course put the noses of the other nieces and nephews quite out of joint, H. being accused of being sneaky.

"Having read some of the letters, I believe that a genuine friendship grew between the two, and that all of the 29-cent stamps and five minutes of time added up through the years to a sizable nest egg.

"Courtesy does pay off, sometimes `only' in courtesy returned but sometimes in bankable dividends. Maybe with such a reminder, people will get back to their foolscap and fountain pens and relearn the art of the personal letter."

So much for motivation. But what to write (Miss Manners hears a high-pitched chorus whining from the desks to which their parents have quite properly pinned them)?

The proper expression of thanks must be accompanied by a vivid detail, as convincing evidence that the reply is not a form letter but was inspired by the actual and particular present. Miss Manners suggests adults prying such expres-sions out of children by interviewing them until some positive statement presents itself.

But she has the good fortune to be able to offer genuine examples, offered by a Gentle Reader with the generous wish that "the cockles of your courteous heart will be warmed by the enclosed photocopies of some thank-you notes I have received from a friend's children over the last few years:

" `Thank you for the creepy-crawly thingsamagigs. Believe me, they're gross. (That's why I like them.)'

" `Thank you for the pretty make-up. I'm glad you had dinner with us.'

" `Thank you for the shark food and the book, "Queen of the Damned." The shark food is delicious and the book is excellent so far.' "

The recipient of these marvelous missives goes on to say that she feels compelled to justify the choice of presents noted in that last note. It seems that the gentleman in question had previously revealed his literary tastes by attempting to abscond with a copy of "The Vampire Lestat" she had lent his parents.

By her next present, she had indicated that she had paid attention to his wishes. By the letter, and most especially by that cautious and authentic "so far," he indicated that he was giving properly close and appreciative attention to her thoughtfulness.

This is the ideal exchange, which makes the giving and receiving of presents worthwhile as a symbolic act of friendship, rather than a pointless system of taxation in goods.

So - what about that shark food?

Never mind. Whatever it is these children have been getting, it seems to have produced in them a healthy appreciation of human kindness.

Dear Miss Manners: Is there a physiological reason for the epidemic of public spitting evident these days?

I see people spit out their car windows, on public walkways, and even in stores. Children, also, follow the lead of their elders. What do you think of this obnoxious public display?

Gentle Reader: The answer to your first question: Doubtless, there is, but Miss Manners doesn't want to hear it.

In the search for excuses for nasty behavior, any affliction, no matter how unusual, may be pressed into service to excuse everyone from exhibiting any restraint whatsoever. You don't need to prove that you actually suffer from a problem - only to cite it.

In Miss Manners' opinion, the truly widespread affliction is a belief, commonly applied to other urges, that the mouth should expel any unpleasantness it wishes, without regard to the effect on others.

Which brings her to the answer to your second question: Yuck.

In a dilemma about giving or receiving presents? Help is available in Miss Manners' "Present-Giving" pamphlet. Send $2, plus a long self-addressed stamped envelope, to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper, P.O. Box 4465, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-4465.