Q: While attending a dinner with my husband's family, I was irritated by the obnoxious behavior of my husband's nieces and nephew, ages 4 to 10. Their rambunctiousness mars any family event: running about in an already small living room, screaming, chasing each other, the youngest son repeatedly banging on the organ, etc. All the while, the parents did little to discourage the noise and activity, even encouraging their "creativity."
Already somewhat uncomfortable, I was provoked to remark to my sister that I felt the children were far too wild, and that the parents just weren't raising them right.
Too late, I realized the father, my husband's brother-in-law, might have overheard my comment. I'd like to apologize to him if he did overhear me, but in case he didn't, I don't want to imply that anything was wrong. Please, can you suggest a tactful way to handle this?
A: Why is it that Miss Manners assumes you have no children of your own? If that is the case you probably insulted your brother-in-law less than you fear. Childless people firmly believe that being brought up properly prevents children from making noise or running about. Parents, having been childless themselves, tend to remember that attitude with some humor. No doubt yourr in-laws are chucking happily about the disillusionment in store for you if you have children of your own. One compliment about the children, unconnected with the previous insult, should remove any hurt.
But this is not to say that Miss Manners does not believe that children can be taught to behave themselves. It's just that behaving themselves is not the same thing as behaving like little adults for long periods of time.
At a family dinner, the proper entertainment for children is not sitting around discussing whether Aunt Augusta is going dotty, or if Cousin Albert is going to marry that creature who seems to be sharing his apartment. They must be sent out to play, whether it is outdoors or in another room. With luck, that will tire them enough to keep them quiet at the dinner table.
If you really want to improve the behavior of these children, you, as their aunt, may arrange individually and impart some manners to them. You could invite one to your house and gently explain the "rules of the house" when she or he exhibits poor manners. Or invite one out for a treat, such as lunch in a restaurant, and insist on proper behavior. The privilege of individual attention from an adult other than a parent should be enough to compensate for the expectation of manners.
However, you may not have that much interest in contributing to the education of these children -- perhaps your deepest motivation is to keep them from knocking your drink into your lap while you are attending obligatory family dinners. In that case, grab an offending child by the arm and say, with a firm voice and hypocritical smile, "I think you'd better stop that -- you might get hurt." It helps if you have a tight grip on the arm while saying this.
Q. I have taught my children to introduce their friends to me, but sometimes they forget. If a child is visiting here, should I, as the lay of the house, greet him first or expect him to greet me?
A. As you have noticed how hard it is to train one's own child, Miss Manners is astonished that you are contemplating waiting for someone else's child to carry the social burden. She recommends your saying, "I'm Christopher's mother; you must be Scott," rather than waiting, perhaps forever, until your visitor says, "I'm Scott; you must be Christopher's mother."