Miss Manners: Instilling manners in children takes a decade or two

October 20, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: We have discussed with our children sending them to “Manners Camp.” Despite our efforts, our children do not have the best manners.

GENTLE READER: If there is ever a case for home schooling, plus home camping, this is it.

No one is more aware than Miss Manners that there is major remedial work to be done in instilling manners in succeeding generations. Administering this is what keeps her from a pleasantly quiet life on the porch swing.

But she is the first to admit that manners, the principles of civilized behavior, and etiquette, the customs of one’s own society, are too complex to be learned in one gulp. Like language, manners are more or less painlessly absorbed from childhood, not only through instruction, but through daily example and practice. Also like language, they are harder to master as an adult, which is when one is more likely to see the need.

Miss Manners is therefore immensely grateful to parents like you who are making the effort. She also understands that it is a long, sometimes discouraging process, and the idea of outsourcing it for a quick fix is tempting.

But as there is no quick fix, your discouragement is premature. Child-rearing takes a couple of decades, but is about as rewarding a pursuit as exists, and the greatest boon you can give to the child and to civilization.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the proper etiquette for an ex-spouse going to the other’s home unannounced?

GENTLE READER: The same ban on unauthorized drop-ins prevails as for any non-resident of the house. And more so, Miss Manners notes, if the other ex-spouse has taken out a restraining order.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Last week I visited a home, last occupied in the early 1900s, which has been turned into a museum. In the formal dining room, they had set the table with china and silver from that time period.

What was odd, however, was that the knives and spoons were on the left side and the napkins and forks were on the right side. They also put the pickle forks with the salad and dinner forks.

I’m guessing that was just to show the pretty silverware. The museum guide didn’t know why the table had been set that way, since she didn’t know it was wrong. She said she would ask the curator.

I was wondering if you know if that was the proper way to set a table around the turn of the century, or did someone just get confused?

GENTLE READER: Confused, or sadly ignorant of the most basic and traditional dining habits of our own society. Miss Manners has observed similarly mis-set tables in several museums, and fears that the curators are unaware of how people behaved, and of how embarrassed they would have been at this sloppiness.

Eating habits have changed over the centuries and vary among societies. The biggest early 20th-century change in regard to flatware was that the great variety of specialized eating instruments that appeared in the late Victorian era began disappearing during World War I, melted down for the silver content.

But no, the surviving forks and knives did not jump over the plates to change places.

New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on www.washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com.

, by Judith Martin

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