Skeptical about those instant remedial etiquette classes being offered for children at fancy venues, Miss Manners now finds that she has something along similar lines to recommend.
It is not a class, so you can't drop off your children and expect to get them back that afternoon professionally civilized. Unfortunately, nothing can relieve parents of the 20-year, around-the-clock task of teaching their own children how to behave toward others. That burden is called child-rearing, and there are no quick fixes.
However, she sympathizes with the occasional yearning parents have to inject an unnatural modicum of sophistication into the unsuspecting young. And there is a seasonal opportunity that might appeal to them.
Miss Manners is not referring to the punitive Santa Claus threat. It takes children half a minute to recognize that bluff. And anyone old enough to have lived through one New Year's Eve sees the flaw in the bribe of being allowed to stay up to watch the adults make fools of themselves: People who are making fools of themselves are not vigilant.
The instrument in question is the nutcracker. Or rather, "The Nutcracker." With the proper preparation, it can turn your perfectly healthy modern child into the sort of fetchingly-dressed combination of excited enthusiasm and charming nervousness who inspires adults inadvertently thrown in their company to comment, "Awwww" instead of "Ewwww."
The wrong way to go about this is to tell the child who is going to a performance for the first time that he or she has nothing to worry about, it's just like going to the movies only better, it's fine to dress comfortably, just relax and you'll have a great time. The adult equivalent of this misbegotten attempt to entice is the overuse of the word "casual" in invitations. It only advertises that the occasion will be nothing special.
Rather, this is the time to reverse all those lectures against succumbing to peer pressure about appearances and announce that all the other children will be dressed up and yours would be embarrassed not to be. Strangely enough, it is true. "The Nutcracker" is for children what the Academy Awards is for actresses -- the wrong time to go in for understatement.
Teaching children audience manners -- to sit still and not talk, what to look for and when to clap -- is accomplished by another childish argument, namely that there will be other children who won't know how to behave. Superiority of social knowledge is not a nice incentive, but, as adults know from their own experience, it is a powerful one.
So is the urge to be in show business. By using child dancers -- in the first act party scene and, in some productions, throughout -- "The Nutcracker" exerts a powerful hold on its young audience. The thought "I could be up there, with everyone applauding me" is an American article of faith that recognizes no boundaries of talent or willingness to work.
Should that lead to pleas for ballet lessons, the parents' job will indeed be made easier. There is nothing like an old-fashioned ballet class run like a Siberian labor camp to give the lie to the notion that children are immune to disciplined formality -- and to make even the most exacting parents seem lenient.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I have two children and my brother-in-law has only one child. When birthdays and holidays come up we exchange gifts with the children. I would like to know if I am supposed to spend twice as much on his child because he has only one and I have two children that he gives to?
I have asked this question of some of my friends, and they all say I should not spent twice as much on his child because my children will only be getting a $25 gift when his son will be getting a $50 gift. What should I do?
GENTLE READER: Have you thought of buying your nephew a present that you think will please him, and which you can afford?
If that violates the spirit of your holidays, Miss Manners suggests you consult an accountant about how to factor in the children's ages (and therefore who has been collecting longer than whom) and an appraiser to assess the value of what your child receives.