When Miss Manners goes around deploring the absence of child-rearing in this society, she is perhaps doing an injustice to parents who indeed put a great deal of love and effort into training their children -- but unfortunately training them to have bad manners.
This requires just as much work as teaching children good manners; more, in fact. Good manners, once learned, merge gently into a general harmony, while bad manners remain a conspicuous irritation to those who practice them and those on whom they are practiced.
Therefore, parents who have trained their children in bad manners usually try to retrain them in mid-childhood, which is twice as much work. And the success rate for retraining is pitiful.
When the children themselves undertake the task of changing their manners, usually later in life and often as a result of the disappointment of alienating someone they had hoped to enthrall, they do better at it. But it leaves them with some bitterness toward those who originally bungled the job, and family resentment is a sad reward for parents who spared no effort to teach their children to behave badly.
Such parents begin by being highly sensitive to the whims of their children, sacrificing their own wishes to cater to the likes and dislikes of the offspring.
First they surrender any chance they may have to enjoy their meals or even digest them, by using mealtimes to force-feed defenseless children a diet of relentless questions.
"Don't you like your beans? Would you rather have potatoes? What do you feel like eating instead?
"Would you rather have some gravy on that? Suppose we scrape off the sauce -- would you like it better?
"Aren't you going to drink your milk? Shall I warm it? Let me put some chocolate sauce in it. Would you rather have juice? Apple juice or orange or cranberry? Oh, that's not the brand you like, is it? I'm sorry, that's all they had -- can you drink it this once? Okay, I'll get the other kind.
"You haven't touched your meat, and you've got to have something. How about a peanut-butter sandwich? What kind of jelly do you want on it? You don't want the dark bread, I know, but I've got some white. Don't worry, I'm not going to give you the crust; I know you don't like that. Do you want it toasted? Light or dark? Shall I cut it for you? Diagonally or straight across?"
And so on. Any self-respecting child is bored senseless by this routine and ought to be forgiven for nodding off quietly with his face in his plate.
But children are more attentive to the parental wishes than their elders suppose, and any alert child quickly learns from this exercise that the strong expression of likes and dislikes, whether one feels them or not:
*creates the amusing spectacle of anxious adults scurrying around to obey ever-changing commands; and
*is usually the only claim a child can make on his share of mealtime attention and conversation.
Thus the parent has, with tremendous effort, turned a perfectly agreeable child into a food fuss, a tyrant and a bore whose idea of conversation is not sharing information or listening to others, but only the expression of his own feelings.
In comparison, the task of teaching a child to report what interesting things he has seen and to listen to the remarks of others, while incidentally being coached by rote to eat whatever food is placed in front of him and to use the proper tools to do so, is an easy one.
This is only one example of reverse child-rearing, if Miss Manners may coin a phrase that doesn't bear scrutiny.
There are parents who laboriously teach their children that good manners are for public and company use only, and that rudeness is the proper expression of intimacy. Those who give their children instruction (or send them where they may get it) not in the basics but in the subdivisions of etiquette that are relevant only to the affluent, are teaching the children snobbery, which is bad manners.
And the most foolish of all are the parents who teach their children, through example, that spotting manners violations, especially small, technical ones, in others gives one a right to humiliate them. Manners should be taught firmly but kindly to one's own children and not at all to others, because criticizing others is, in itself, a rudeness.
As much as she understands and admires the parental desire to devote oneself to one's children at whatever personal cost, she cannot fathom why anyone would put so much work into spoiling his or her own home life.
Q: What is the proper thing for a lady to do with jewelry that has been given to her by an admirer whom she no longer sees? Is it appropriate to continue to wear it or should it be given away, possibly to a charity?
A: Just one moment, please. Miss Manners is straining herself to refrain from asking why a lady has accumulated jewelry from an admirer to whom she is not married.
All right, she has that under control. This is not the first time Miss Manners has had to skip the part about whether one should have the problem, and proceed to solving it.
One question only. By "jewelry," we both mean articles of monetary value, don't we, and not trinkets of sentimental value only? Just curious. That does not affect the answer, which would be the same for a college ring with a big dull glass stone as for a diamond necklace.
Return all jewelry. If the breakup was an unpleasant one, you may throw it in the gentleman's face. However, if you merely got bored with him or found a better source, wrap it all up prettily and attach a note about how you wouldn't feel right keeping it.
Q: I have observed closely over the past two years the relationship of a divorced father with his two out-of-state children.
The father has sent the children $175 per month, not only on time but months ahead of time, so no need would arise on their part. He has phoned his children weekly in a sincere attempt to have a positive influence on their lives. He has arranged and paid for plane fare for Christmas, Easter and summer visits.
When he lost his job, no one asked him how he was. He received threats of jail from the children's mother if payments should stop.
Don't you think at least a thank-you note should be sent in acknowledgment of the child-support payments? I think it is a definite lack of manners on the part of the receiving parties, to say the least.
A: Why does Miss Manners think you are in love with the divorced father? It comforts her to believe that he has someone near to him, appreciating his steadiness and commiserating with him. But do not take that as agreement with you that the gentleman's children and former wife ought to be writing him thank-you letters for child support.
Financial and emotional support for one's children, whether one is married or divorced, is an obligation of being a parent. Are the children in the habit of thanking their mother for rearing them or, for that matter, does the father thank her for doing so?
Miss Manners hopes that all grown children eventually reflect on the devotion of their parents and thank them for it. But a youngster who does so would be making the pathetic assumption that the father is doing a favor rather than his natural duty.
Q: A mature, educated, cosmopolitan, above-average-income man frequently invites a similarly situated lady to dinner at various nice restaurants -- occasionally the most expensive, but usually the class just below that. Lady is aware that the right-hand column of the menu is no restriction.
Sometimes a usable coupon is available to the man ("50 percent off on second dinner" or "Order two, second is free"). I'm sure you've seen them.
Lady objects: "Don't use a coupon when you are with me. Save them for your chintzy friends." Etc.
Is it demeaning to be the guest at an unannounced "coupon" dinner? Should the guest be informed beforehand, so she can accept or decline the coupon situation? Or is it not her concern whether the check is paid in dollars, plastic, coupons, rubles, rupees or whatever satisfies the restaurateur?
A: Exactly so. You see, a lady does not even notice how the bill is paid (unless she is the hostess, in which case the gentleman becomes unaware of how the bill-paying is accomplished), so how can she possibly prefer one method over another?
Q: Twice now, a friend, who to the best of my knowledge is in perfect health, waited until dinner was served at my home and then said, "I can't eat this," "I can't eat that."
At the last moment, she expects me to substitute something else. It's embarrassing, it's extra trouble and I don't always have what she wants.
Am I supposed to ask her in advance what she would like or not like and then change my menu? Or should I just ignore what I think is rude and let her eat whatever is there?
Nothing seems to suit her, and my thoughts are that she should refuse the invitation or else not mention her likes and dislikes.
A: Exactly so. Your friend must be politely discouraged from imagining that your house is a public restaurant.
When a guest does this on the spot, you need not pretend that you have six other selections available. Merely say, "Oh, I'm so sorry" and offer something cupboardy -- bread and butter, for example, or chicken broth.
Since this particular friend has made her rudeness a habit -- Miss Manners supposes we can count two instances as a habit -- you might rephrase your next invitation:
"I'm having some people in to dinner a week from Saturday, and I'd so love to have you, but I know you have problems with food. Would you come in at, say 9:30, and join us for coffee? That way, we'd at least get to enjoy your company without your having to pretend you can eat what I'm making."
Q: After a seemingly interminable search, I've discovered the one true keeper of the key. We plan to marry in the spring but are keeping it a secret to avoid whoopla by families and coworkers.
As luck would have it, lately some very dapper business acquaintances have begun asking me out for lunch. Has love changed my pheromones, I wonder?
I do not want to assume these fellows are interested in cultivating nonbusiness relationships, but at the same time, I do not want to leave the impression that I am available.
I wear no ring, and other than the prominent display of my loved one's photograph (and not everyone sees my office), there is no outward sign of my pending matrimony.
It is, most times, awkward to work in comments such as "My roommate is . . .," and then there's the problem of what to call him. I'm too long in the tooth to say "boyfriend," and "fiance" doesn't fit either.
Since I am not overtly engaged, I feel my acceptance of these invitations might be misleading, although I do enjoy the company. How may I graciously handle the overtures?
A: Miss Manners is so enamored of your term "whoopla" that she cannot imagine why you want to avoid it.
However, she hopes that even when you do announce your engagement, and when you are actually married, you will not feel you have to shun your male colleagues at lunchtime, if, indeed, they are seeking your company for reasons other than courtship.
Then it will be easy to throw in pointed references to "My fiance (or husband) and I"; in the meantime, you have to make do with "Daniel and I," with a sweet look that invites a question you will answer blushingly by saying, "Oh, he's a special friend of mine."