Going Incognito

Sometimes a well mannered mother may find herself seated in an evening French class, at a downtown book signing, or even a lecture by a semi-famous person, surrounded by strangers, all of whom appear to have come from work, some in their twenties, others over 60, but by all appearances all without children at home! Has she entered a parallel universe? If she has come directly from a frenetic house full of cavorting children, even a well mannered mother may be tempted to make small talk with those seated nearby, with something like, “Sorry about the spit up on my sweater – you know babies!” Or, “Oh I love your orange bag -- my son loves anything orange.” Or, “how about that parking? Sure was hard to find a spot big enough for my mini-van.” However, in this situation, we suggest, “Don’t blow your cover!” Go incognito for the evening; try to pass. If someone attempts to make small talk, rack your brain for non-child-related topics, or better yet, pull up some conversation topics that you have stored just for this type of occasion: the antics of Stephen Colbert, the financial peccadilloes of the local library, or even the class/author/speaker that you currently await. Surreptitiously look around the room at all these people who live in this other world where one goes to work and then comes home to do whatever one feels like doing. Bask in the adultness of it all. Imagine some of your fellow audience members going home to their tidy households, where there are no toys on the floor, no backpacks or jackets spilling from the mudroom, no broken plastic party favors heaped on the kitchen counter. After they wake the next day, you can imagine that they may even sit in an actual chair at the breakfast table and peruse the paper or check email before heading out to their offices. Imagine if your life were this calm and orderly; remember what your life was once like. Then, think of your children, sleeping snugly in their beds by now (or at least picture them so) and think how happy you will be to see them in the morning. With all this imagining, you might not hear a word of the class, book reading or lecture, but you’ve gotten a lot out of the evening, nonetheless.

The Soundtrack of your Life

There comes a time in every mother’s life where she has to make a difficult decision -- a life-altering decision about the very-nature of her family life. A choice that will set the tone and the tune for road trips, mornings in the kitchen, evenings cooking dinner, and many moments in between. Should she embrace music recorded and marketed specifically for children and families (Disney movie soundtracks, Kidz Rock, Laurie Berkner) or follow her own musical interests? She must choose: Raffi family? Or Rolling Stones family?

In contemplating this far-reaching decision, she may hear statements like, “Its really not that bad!” or even, “Its pretty cute!” from parents who profess to take pleasure in “music that both parents and children can enjoy!” These may be the very same parents who can be seen happily singing along to Sesame Street Platinum as they drive around with their 6 month old. They may be the parents who can belt out the Wiggles’ “Toot, Toot, Chugga Chugga Big Red Car” without a trace of irony, self-doubt, or embarrassment. A mother who sees herself this way can declare her intentions to be a Raffi family, invest in the entire Sesame Street Song collection, and sing along to her heart’s content.

A mother less certain of her proclivities may instead choose to peruse album and song titles, where she will undoubtedly see words like, “Tummy” and “Yummy” with a few animal sounds thrown in for good measure. (“Moo!”) Should the song titles and her sense of personal dignity not deter her from embracing kids’ music, she should be forewarned that it’s a slippery slope. Much like deciding to go with the minivan, once you go down this road, it may be hard to return. In the case of children’s music, its not the “convenience” that keeps a family hooked, but the whining children in the backseat, calling “please, just play “willaby wallaby” one more time!” and the parents who are understandably so desperate to calm the frenzy that they willingly relenquish all musical control.

Of course, choosing to follow your own musical interests is not without its drawbacks. A well mannered mother may be frequently forced to forward to the next song or get comfortable hearing her 4 year old quietly sing, “I wanna be sedated” while doing a puzzle. And she’s not likely to have much luck convincing him that the lyrics are actually “I wanna be successful.” Even with a 4 year old. In no time at all, a mother of independent musical tastes may find herself cornered, and asked, “Mom, what’s an amphetamine?” At that point, she might reconsider the Grateful Dead steal your face onsie and coordinated baby-sized rasta tam that she found so cute only a few short years ago.

So, how is a well mannered mother to maintain both musical and parental standards? (Not to mention her dignity.) We suggest she take the time to enjoy R.E.M. on Sesame Street, or the Shins on Yo Gabba Gabba. Find those “real” musicians making “real” music for families and children. Sift through her existing music collection, and music new to her, for safe songs and make family playlists. Because it would be better to be listening to Drivin’ n Cryin’ in the car than to actually be driving and crying.

Is Preppy Polite?

The impending publication of True Prep, the sequel to The Official Preppy Handbook  causes one to consider.  Is madras inherently well mannered? Do a penchant for plaid and a liking for Lilly mean you know how to behave? Do the teachings of Emily Post belong to the entitled?

Certainly not. Anyone can be well mannered. You don’t need docksiders and monogrammed tumblers. So why do so many self styled “preppy”people seem so focused on manners? Is it because they have the time to care? Is it because they frequent exclusive locales where one is judged on such things? No matter how flamboyant one's trousers, all people appreciate it when someone is polite. Having good manners really means being considerate of the feelings and needs of others. Introducing yourself to a stranger, shaking hands, holding a door, offering someone a drink are all designed to put another person at ease. If one uses fancy manners to exclude another person she is not being polite. Think of the elegant hostess who drinks out of her finger bowl because a guest has mistaken her own for a water vessel. This kindness cost the hostess nothing and is much more considerate to the guest than pointing out her mistake in a room full of people.

Bring on True Prep and reissue the original but just remember wearing plaid does not make you polite.  Being polite makes you polite and being rude in plaid just makes you look like an ass. 

Vigilante Parenting

They strike fear into the hearts of reasonable and well mannered parents everywhere.They are the dads that scream at you and your 5 year-old on the playgroundbecause your son’s kickball accidentally landed on his daughter. They are themothers who call your house to “inform you” that your 7 year-old would not holdher daughter’s hand on the class field trip. They are the people who would callthe police if you ever attempted to leave your sleeping toddler in the car(windows open of course) and race into the dry cleaner. They are the motherswho tell the teacher how to manage her classroom.They are the vigilantes, the KGB, the parenting police. They lurk, watching andwaiting to strike the moment you make a mistake. Racing over to "helpfully" point out justhow awful you/your children are before you can even process what’s happened. They are the people who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe they know more and better about your children that you do.

When confronted with these officious individuals the best thing a well manneredmother can do is smile politely and say “I’m terribly sorry but I never involvemyself in my children’s disputes” or “I appreciate your concern, but I’ve gotthis. Thank you.” If an apology is in order do so pleasantly and quickly, “I amso sorry about that. Algernon is working on his hand-eye coordination. Look atthe time! We must run - he has fencing in 20 minutes. Goodbye.” Do not linger.Do not over-explain. They are waiting for an opening to exhibit theirsuperior knowledge and skill in all things parental.

The most frustrating part of such encounters aside from the total invasion of spaceand privacy is that these people are out there making hard working, wellmannered modern mothers doubt themselves and their children. Well cringe no more! Doubt no more! You are doing a fine job and you do not need to stand aroundlistening to the ill-mannered, know-it-all, playground pariahs.

Emergency Room Etiquette

Unfortunately, most mothers (and fathers) will sometime find themselves sitting in a room full of hollow-eyed strangers, with a child curled up and clinging, trying to ignore the TV blaring CNN or Nick at Night. In other words, many mothers will someday find themselves waiting in the Emergency Room. Perhaps a daughter may decide to ski herself into an oncoming tree, maybe a young child needs IV fluids after a virulent GI bug, or a son may need some x-rays after some excessively ebullient superhero enactments. Whatever the reason she ends up there (and we hope it is always a relatively benign one), a mother may feel understandably anxious, upset, overwhelmed and even terrified. The problem is that everyone waiting in an ER is white-knuckled, worried, and waiting with a loved one in need of medical care – a recipe for frayed tempers and lack of consideration. A wise mother knows, however, that maintaining her manners in the face of the apparent chaos and intensity of the ER, is not only the “right thing to do,” it may also help her child get good care.

ER doctors and nurses have seen it all. They will not be amused by imperious requests to “see a manager,” casually dropped comments about knowing a hospital board member, or disrespectful language. Pull some really colorful stunts, and they may even blog about you, but they won’t take care of your child any faster. A mother is her child’s most important advocate but irritating the staff is not advocacy. Asking pointed questions politely, paying attention, taking notes, understanding the expected sequencing of events (see doctor, medical testing, see doctor again), and learning the names of the medical staff are all effective ways to simultaneously maintain civility and advocate for a child patient. No need to fear seeming demanding, it is well within a mother's rights to ask for an update on her child’s status, just remember to use "please" and "thank you" and for goodness sakes don’t ask every 5 minutes. With luck, the child will be discharged shortly with a sheet of instructions, possibly a cast, prescription or stitches, and a follow-up appointment scheduled. In these cases, all parties should leave with a sigh of relief and healthy sense of gratitude.

Barbarians at the Plate

As discussed previously, passable table manners in children are not achieved without tremendous effort. Thus, when the well mannered modern mother is at last ready to introduce her little dears to the world of out-of-the-home dining the last thing she needs is the Visigoths charging into the Forum leaving a trail of carnage and destruction in their wake. In other words, as a delightfully well mannered friend recently asked 'What can you do when you have taken your generally well behaved children out to eat with another family only to discover that their progeny are not even acquainted with the basics of civilized dining?' While obviously making a mental note to “never do this again” the well mannered mother still needs to get through the next 45 minutes. Or not. In such a case the well mannered no-nonsense-mother has every right to give her own children two very clear warnings and at the third offense bundle them home (paying the bill whether her food has arrived or not) to a dinner of pb&j.

If she chooses to remain and fight the good fight she should focus on the basics - keeping her children seated and speaking at a reasonable volume. The exception, of course, is al fresco dining in which case they are welcome to play on the lawn before and after the meal arrives. Assuming there is no fresco and the other children are tearing around the restaurant, making inappropriate noises, throwing rolls, putting straws up their noses and quoting the Black Eyed Peas while the other mother is sipping her slow gin fizz studiously ignoring her terrific children – what then? In such a scenario the well mannered mother can hardly expect her children to be impervious to such wild temptation. Instead of shrieking like a Harpy or getting into it with her 'friend' the best a well mannered mother can probably do is quietly remind her children what is expected of them and point out that there are other people in the restaurant trying to have a nice dinner. The sirens’ call of dessert might also have some effect. Other than that, breathe, have a glass of prosecco and promise yourself you will never ever, ever go out to dinner with those children again. As for your own children, remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and you should have them back in shape in a month or two.

Diaper Danger (part 2)

The mother of very young children may sometimes find herself in a busy restaurant or on an airplane, with a baby or toddler in urgent need of a diaper change. She may feel a moment of panic when she sees the limited and paltry options for changing: (1) a closet-like bathroom of dubious hygiene with no counter or other horizontal surface, or (2) right there, at the table or airplane seat. That’s it. Even the best-equipped diaper bags can’t rectify this situation.

As she considers the crowded scene before her, a mother can be forgiven for thinking no one will notice if she sneaks in a quick diaper change, right there, at her seat. But they will. There are always people grumpy to see babies and small children in restaurants and on airplanes, no matter how quiet and angelic. A visible public diaper change just might send one of these people over the edge, turn the stomach of an otherwise child-loving observer, or even violate health codes.

And, so, despite the indignity and frustration, the well-mannered mother must swallow hard, grab her diaper bag and make it work. In a restaurant, she could consider escaping to her car, if she drove. Or try using a reclined stroller as a “changing table” if she can find a discreet place for it. However she manages, she keeps the diaper change private. She may be thinking, “this is not what I signed up for!” as she cradles her baby’s head and shoulders with one arm, grabs the wipes and changes the diaper with the other arm, all while limiting contact with the paper towels and changing pad on the bathroom floor. She may even break into a sweat. But she will know that she has made her own heroic contribution towards keeping the world civilized, even if the perpetually grumpy people sitting next to her don’t have the slightest clue what she has spared them.

The Favor of a Reply

is Requested. Yet these days, what are the chances? Anyone who has invited anyone to anything in recent memory knows that a good ROI (for our purposes, Return on Invitation) is around 80%. Regardless of whether the invitation is engraved, embossed, evited or emailed, the well mannered hostess knows that there are invitees who will not respond to her invitation.

What goes on here? The question of why people no longer feel obligated to let a hostess know her (or her offspring’s) intentions regarding party attendance is a perplexing one. Is it possible that modern mothers feel so stretched and over-committed with work, school, family, activities and sports that instead of being a pleasant diversion, a social invitation has become just something else to add to the to-do list? How sad! Is the potential guest waiting until all her options are on the table before committing her Saturday night? How shabby! Could it be that there are people walking around and holding down jobs who do not know the meaning of R.S.V.P. and act solely out of ignorance? How on earth?

 While life does move pretty fast these days and things do fall through the cracks, may we suggest in this case a little forethought and empathy will go a long way to endearing the modern mother to her future hostess. And who knows, some day she might even want to invite someone to something – and wouldn’t it be nice to know who was coming?

Below, please find a step by step guide to the receipt and handling of an invitation:  1. The well mannered mother opens the invitation. 2. She looks at her calendar and asks herself: A. Is she free? B. Would she like to attend? C. Would she prefer not to attend? D. Is she busy? 3. Right then, at that very moment, she picks up the phone, sends the email, clicks the Respond Here button, or writes a quick note and lets her hostess know. By doing this she does not seem desperate or over-zealous. She seems like a thoughtful individual who appreciates the fact that someone was kind enough to want to include her or her, frankly, tiresome four-year-old in a social gathering.

Swearing like a Sailor... at Seven?

Some rainy afternoon, a well mannered mother may come upon her children whispering conspiratorially, while listening to the Black Eyed Peas' “My Humps” on a CD she foolishly allowed them to borrow from the public library. “Shhh… here… its here! Listen!” one child says to the other and they bend their heads close to the speaker, and their eyes flicker in recognition, when they hear the lyric, “…all that ass inside those jeans...” Never mind that the song is dreadfully inappropriate for so many reasons besides the language. Never mind that this is probably not the first time they’ve heard a swear word. Never mind that the song is just really, really bad. Even annoying.

The mother recognizes her children are focused on the language and this is a “teachable moment.” Though she may be tempted to pretend she doesn’t see them, she has no excuse. The house is reasonably quiet; its not bedtime, homework time, or get-out-the-door-we’re late-for-school time. The only problem is that she’s not entirely sure how, exactly, she should address swearing.

She briefly considers confiscating the CD, disapproving loudly and continuing about her business, imagining that her children’s world is and will remain PBS kids, Raffi, and homemade cookies. Next, she considers postponing any discussions with a deft “re-direct,” and a comment like, “Oh you want to hear funny song? Have you ever heard of Weird Al Yankovic?” But she decides to save the powerful tool of Weird Al for a more desperate parenting occasion.

So she takes her mother in-law’s advice (really!) and tries to address the language issue head on. Casually as possible, she asks, “oh are you listening for the part where they say, ‘ass’?” (Yes, if your mother can say “ass,” it can’t be that cool or dangerous.) Then she explains, “Most adults find swear word offensive, especially coming from children,” adding, “I don’t care if you use those words, but I would be really disappointed if you were to use those words in front of other children and adults.” Voila! Words (hopefully) de-mystified, expectations defined. The well mannered mother can only hope that they are met. Meanwhile, she braces herself for the moment when her toddler, eavesdropping from the next room, starts swearing like a sailor.
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