IN AN AGE that believes that the full expression of any emotion is in itself an act of glory -- in spite of the daily disasters resulting from the full expresI sion of ugly emotions, some of which would have been fleeting -- Miss Manners maintains a list of emotions that ought never to be felt, much less expressed.
Children under her jurisdiction soon learn, for example, that she does not permit boredom, guilt, depression or jealousy. She does not deny that such feelings are natural, but believes it to be one of the noble purposes of child-rearing to provide civilized alternatives to these dreary messes.
One banishes boredom by alerting children, through the years, to the curiosities and riches of the world. For the short term, one makes practical suggestions ("You could read a book, you could call a friend, you could play with that new toy you were so anxious to get, you could make something . . .") and then one responds unsympathetically to whining pleas of terminal ennui ("Well, then, it sounds as if you might as well spend the time giving your room a thorough cleaning").
Children must be taught to sift that amorphous substance called guilt to find out what part of it is actually true shame, curable by refraining from disgraceful acts (or by acknowledging them and doing appropriate penance). The rest, that great cloud of nonspecific guilt that hangs over our society, may be safely blown away.
Depression, another national pastime, is a term invoked by functioning people in order to give false dignity to such common feelings as annoyance, sadness and being-out-of-sorts. Miss Manners does not permit that exaggeration.
And jealousy is not, in her mind, an emotion made respectable by admitting it. Miss Manners knows that it is not easy to teach the lesson that one's competition in life is one's own best potential against one's weaknesses, and that the achievements, failures and honors of others ultimately have very little to do with it. But she thinks this worth the effort. A child naturally finds it easier to focus on the unjustness of the world, as proven by the successes of anyone and everyone else, than to improve him or herself, but such a tendency should be stopped before it turns into the career of a lifetime.
Now, Miss Manners expects to receive a good deal of nonsense about all this from people who believe that children are emotionally ill unless proven otherwise, and that all training of them should therefore be therapeutic and infinitely tolerant. Miss Manners has never accepted the popular view of life as a psychological problem.
But she would like to slide away from the argument by turning to a gentler example of an emotion that, while not entirely unattractive, nevertheless is inconvenient and encumbering, and which should be added to the list of emotions to be expunged. That is embarrassment.
Embarrassment, in its nicest form, is the becomingly modest belief that one is taking up too much social space, and the laudable desire to refrain from annoying others with one's mistakes. But it does not do one any good.
One relief for general embarrassment, which also happens to be part of the cure for boredom and for a great many other nasty things, is learning to imagine the feelings of others, which leads to the conclusion that they cannot be much different from one's own.
Another is to learn that each individual is responsible for his own behavior, and that the child may therefore be relieved from being embarrassed on behalf of his parents or other socially inept relatives or friends. A parent may be asked to change certain small habits that directly affect the child ("Please don't call me Cookie in front of my friends"), but one who agrees to alter or suppress anything basic is only encouraging the idea of embarrassment by association.
Lastly, there is the embarrassment that comes of making a social mistake. Relief should come from knowing that few people are immune, and that nearly anything can be carried off with an apology or a laugh at one's own expense. To act embarrassed, after one has done something accidental but awful, is worse than the original gaffe -- because it causes other people embarrassment. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. Who, according to etiquette, inherits the Family Bible? I am the eldest of three daughters, whose mother inherited the Bible from her side of the family. Upon her death, my two sisters thought I should get it. There are many illustrations, some in color, some in black and white. It weighs 13 pounds and was published in 1884.
I have two daughters; the middle sister's daughter is older than the son; the youngest sister has three sons. Do we take a vote and, if so, who decides which child wants it most? Does it automatically go to the eldest grandchild of this generation? What do other families do?
A. Probably other families fight over it. A really vicious battle over the family Bible could keep a spirited family feuding for generations. Voting, or speculating on which child is most eager to get it, would be a good way to open such a war.
You were singularly blessed, apparently not only by a Good Book, but in having two generous sisters. It would be amazingly gracious of you to designate the oldest grandchild to receive the Bible, but Miss Manners doubts that anyone would take issue with your leaving it to your elder child.