DEAR MISS MANNERS: In the last year, my husband and I have found out that the daughter of my best friend is, in fact, my husband's daughter. We had no idea. This little girl was conceived while my husband and I were separated. My husband and I have also had our own child, who is 6 months old.
We have moved the older child and her mother into our home and have started to provide for them the best we can (the mother does not work). We are now at the point that my husband has taken on a second job and is not home very often.
I still get along with my best friend and we are even closer then we were before, but I am at a loss of how to handle the older child. She is downright rude to me, will not listen to me, will cry if I so much as raise my voice at my niece, who is 4, and lies to me. I know this is a big change for her, but I do not know what to do to make this situation work. How do I not lose it with this child?
GENTLE READER: You have managed not to lose it so far, under what Miss Manners would think rather trying circumstances, so she has faith that you can carry on.
You can hardly blame the child for being confused about the lines of authority in this household. Who wouldn't be?
As you are both the lady of the house and this child's stepmother, you need to be able to exercise authority. Yet -- as you have discovered, and tyrants find out only when they are about to lose their heads -- no one can govern successfully without the consent, in some form, of the governed.
It will take a great deal of patience and warmth for this child to understand that you have her interests at heart. Your niece may or may not know that you love her even when you yell (oh, sorry, you just raise your voice), but the other child must feel that your displeasure will have terrible consequences.
You are fortunate that the mother is there to offer steady reassurance about you, and about their position in the household. The child should be able to observe, on a daily basis, that there is trust between you, and that the rules in regard to both morals and manners are endorsed by all three adults, not directed solely at this child but apply to everyone.
So please lower your voice.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: When setting the dinner table, why do we place the forks on the left?
GENTLE READER: Why do we drive on the right? In both cases, the actual position is arbitrary, but having a fixed position is essential.
Having to search around for your fork every time you have a meal may not be as dangerous as driving on the wrong side of the road, although if you snatch the fork of a hungry and volatile neighbor, Miss Manners would not be able to answer for the consequences.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)