ON THE SUBJECT of manners for children, many adults believe that the opposite of "polite" is "creative." Poor little mannerly children, they think -- how suppressed and inhibited they must be. Actually, the opposite of "polite" is "rude." If you think rude children are better off emotionally than well-behaved ones, you are in luck, because there are so many of them around . . ." With these words, the inimitahble Miss Manners throws down her impeccably white glove in the cause of civilizing the world in one generation.
No one who is even slightly acquainted with Miss Manners needs to be told how thoroughly, how intelligent, and how hilariously she has conducted her affair of honor. For example, here is Miss Manners tackling the touchy subject of punishment: "It would be nice to say that the proper parent need not be concerned with proper forms of punishment, because if he or she has properly practiced proper child-rearing, there will be no crimes to punish. Even Miss Manners doesn't dream she could get away with that. Besides, her respect for civilization itself, which it is the goal of child-rearing to instill, is so great that she does not believe it can be absorbed without a struggle. Show her a child who has never rebelled against becoming civilized, and she will show you a child who isn't smart enough to realize what those people are trying to do to him."
As you see, Miss Manners can manage the tricky feat of being an idealist and a realist at the same time.This is best illustrated by her willingness to advise families as they are and not as she might wish they were. In the section entitled "Unpaired Parents," there are discussions of such practical concerns as the mannerly way to conduct the custody weekend and the etiquette required from and towards the parent's live-in companion. The chapter on weddings also provides help for multiple-parented brides and grooms.
There is, of course, the obligatory section on manners while eating, in which are reviewed not only topics Emily Post might have covered, but such helpful extras as how to lick an ice cream cone and what to do about a tablemate who swipes your french fries.
As an adoptive parent who has had her share of rude questions over the past 20 years, I was particularly gratified with Miss Manners' help for those of use who would like to maintain family grace while under boorish attack. To the mother of a handicapped son who must constantly deal with persons whose "curiosity outweighs their intelligence," Miss Manners wisely replies:
"GENTLE READER: Miss Manners is gratified that you are willing to deal with the reality of the situation, which is that people always will be asking those rude questions, and that there is no percentage in your son's learning to return the rudeness. You do not even mention the rudeness of being asked questions about your son in front of him, as if he were an object, which Miss Manners finds appalling, too.
"Only when the temporarily able-bodied come to accept disabilities as a common human condition will we have a truly civilized society. In the meantime, you must continue, politely and firmly, to refuse to satisfy unseemly curiosity about his person. Miss Manners suggests you meet all questions with the cheerful statement "Oh, the braces are utilitarian. I assure you, he doesn't just wear them for decorative purposes."
THERE IS a danger in immersing oneself in Miss Manners' style and substance. The humble reviewer may become doused with delusions of grandeur . . .
DEAR MS. REVIEWER: Just two years ago, at great personal sacrifice, I went out and bought Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, and I am a constant reader of her syndicated column. Should I pawn the family ruby to buy her new book, or is it mostly reruns of the above?
GENTLE BUYER: By all means, pawn the family ruby. In the first place, Miss Manners' late grandmother considered colored stones tacky, and in the second, like the virtuous woman in the Book of Proverbs, Miss Manners' price is "far above rubies." Yes, there is some overlapping, but Miss Manners maintains that the two chief tools of child-rearing are example and nagging. You wouldn't want her to set a bad example by never repeating herself, now would you? Beside, the illustrations along make this book worth the family jewel. [Note to the publisher: Please do not prosecute anyone who photocopies Gloria Kamen's illustrations. Every parent striving for adequacy will find it necessary to hang a copy of page 4, "Essential Parental Facial Expressions" (including "just wait 'till the company leaves") beside the bathroom mirror. And the absolutely delectable double-spread "Wardrobes for Proper Children" pages 118-119, being done as it is in paper doll style, is guaranteed to tempt beyond endurance some not yet perfect child into taking her scissors to the page.] DEAR MS. REVIEWER: I don't have any children. What's more, I don't even like children. Do I need this book?
GENTLE BUYER: Yes. Or perhaps you haven't noticed the number of persons under five feet tall who regard you with quiet polite humor and a fixed smile.
DEAR MS. REVIEWER: I hate to seem picky, but don't you think the subtitle of Miss Manners' new book: "A Primer for Everyone Worried about the Future of Civilization" just the teeniest bit pretentious?
GENTLE BUYER: Absolutely not. If only the leaders of the world would listen to Miss Manners. "Ideological differences are no excuse for rudeness," she says, and I'm sure, knowing her as I do, that she considers name calling, threats, and assorted rattling of missiles, exceedingly rude. Miss Manners emphasizes that manners have to do, not with how you feel, which is your own business, but with how you behave, which is everyone's concern. If we could all learn how to behave politely, the future of civilization, not to mention the planet, would be considerably brighter.