"If that's what makes you happy."

"I'm sure you know what's best for you."

"After all it's your life, not mine."

Some children grow old longing to hear such words from their parents and never do, at least not delivered straight.

Others hear them all their lives, but with indifference because they presume that such is the spirit in which they were uttered.

Since this demonstrates, once again, that parents can never win, Miss Manners might as well throw in a few complaints of her own. Not that she sides with the children, mind you; she assumes that all parents mean well.

Thus recognizing and appreciating parental virtues, Miss Manners considers that those who give their children the benefit of their wisdom are generous, because they know they have a greater supply than their children and want to share. Those who refrain from doing so she considers to be more modest, rather than less generous.

She finds that the latter technique is more prevalent now than the former, in spite of all that carrying on about parents who try to live their children's lives, don't know when to let go and so on. A time lag is common between parental behavior and children's perception of what to complain about. That is why the young were carrying on about the psychological consequences of being saddled with puritanical parents long after the real problem became identifying strangers whom parents were blithely bringing to breakfast.

More and more often now, parents are actually deferring to their children's judgment and doing so when the children are younger and younger. So that is the approach Miss Manners wishes to attack.

She does so in spite of admiration for the nobility that may prompt people to squelch the natural instinct to boss around one's children: respect for the children's sovereignty and superior knowledge of their own feelings and of the situations in which they find themselves. The policy of allowing them to learn from their mistakes. A belief in democracy so fervent that it is applied within the family. The ability to see different points of view to an extent that one is humbled in regard to supporting one's own.

All this contributes to that odd notion that children are the best judges of what is good for them--although Miss Manners concedes that they may well be the best judges in families who succumb to this notion.

The fallacy here is that without parental direction, the child will figure things out for himself. We won't even get into the question of whether this will include considering the long range consequences, moral implications or effect on others. Such as the child's judgment is, will it actually be used?

Miss Manners thinks not. Someone else is going to teach them how to behave if their parents don't. She could do it, and often does, dispensing wisdom as fast as she can--but they come to her late after getting into trouble.

The general training is done by their peers, of course. Television does what it can, but there is nothing like direct instruction.

So other preschoolers fill them in on preschool social theory: "Toady to those who are more confident than you and pick on those who are less." Other teenagers fill them in on teenage conventions: "Demand to look exactly like the most popular kids, on the grounds that this expresses who you are." And so on.

This training continues right through adulthood, for example when parents refrain from imparting their experience on ceremonial and social events to allow their children to plan their own weddings unassisted. Replacement assistance arrives in the form of salespeople who impersonate impartial experts and teach that their goods are not only useful or attractive but also required for the sake of propriety.

These are the default teachers of etiquette when parents don't do the job. Of all the foolish child-rearing theories Miss Manners has heard over the decades--and there have been some hair-raising ones--the most foolish of all is the theory that they should reason out everything for themselves.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin