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We were celebrating my birthday last week at a lovely London restaurant, and my toddler grandchild could not believe her luck when the waitress set a plate with a hamburger and french fries in front of her. She beamed at her new best friend, and confided the numbers one-to-ten in English and Spanish. (Minus the number six, of course, because for reasons we don’t quite understand, that number is dead to her. It must never be mentioned.)

The beginning of this beautiful friendship was cut short, however, when the waitress came back later and took her plate away. The baby fixed her with a glare so terrible paint cracked on the wall behind her. Grown men turned white and headed for the bar, while a nearby dog hid under a table. The focussed power of the stinkeye leveled on our server was so alarming, the accompanying wail so ear-piercing, that the plate-thief stumbled back to the kitchen for safety. While my kids tried to apologize, I thought about the process of civilizing small children—and the sheer joy of knowing it’s their problem now. As my friend Kirizar commented below, “Revenge is a dish best served in grandchildren-sized portions.”

Schadenfreude: the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. —Wikipedia

My husband learned etiquette at dancing class, where he acquired such life skills as the fox trot, cutting in, and not wearing white socks.

I learned etiquette from Our Lady of Plaid High School’s lecture series: “Young Ladies Shouldn’t____”

  • …sing along with the chorus to Country Joe’s war protestGive me an F, give me a U, [etc]”—during the bishop’s annual school visit.
  • …appear in public with minimal skirts, maximal makeup, or unrelated men with facial hair.
  • …refuse a religious vocation to convent life from the Holy Spirit. (I can only attribute the nun’s enthusiasm for this last lecture to their belief in miracles.)

[image credit: TV Tropes]

I remember when our first male teacher—a graduate student from Berkeley trying to maintain his draft-exemption—arrived to sub for Sister Mary History because she had a Religious Crisis during third period. Sister had brought us down to the library to do some research, and Carol Dullea discovered that she could use her purse mirror to focus a beam of light on the dove in the mosaic tile floor. Twenty-seven mirror beams were making the dove do tricks when Sister noticed. Informing us that the Holy Spirit was making a third period history visitation, she made us get down on our knees to pray for world peace and a vocation to religious life. When the bell rang, she wouldn’t let us leave until Sister Mary Office came down to find out what was going on. Sister Mary History got a long…long rest, and we got the “Young Ladies Shouldn’t Give Elderly Nuns Nervous Breakdowns” lecture, along with a new (male) teacher.

The next day our new history teacher, Mr. Martin, wrote his name on the board and turned to face us. He grew pale, broke out in a sweat, and bolted from the room. A few minutes later, Sister Mary Office gave us the “Young Ladies With Uniform Skirts Rolled Up Into Micro-Minis Shouldn’t Straddle Their Desks” lecture. (Mr. Martin volunteered for active duty in Viet Nam soon after, and Sister Mary Office taught the third period history for the rest of the year. I didn’t learn much about the ancient world, but I did learn the correct filing rules for tricky bits like M/Mc/Mac…)

When our first child was potty trained, we figured our job as her parents was pretty much completed. Oh sure, we’d spend a few more years together, maybe contribute to a couple of orthodontists’ or orthopedic surgeons’ retirement funds. But basically, we assumed that our next big parental task was going to be be dropping said child off at her college dormitory.

What we soon realized is that between these two events comes the job of civilizing a little being with less appreciation for the social niceties than Attila the Hun. [If only I had a dollar for every time I said, “No, you can’t have your own flamethrower. It’s rude to torch the neighbors, even if they don’t want to play your way.”]

While I tackled the easy issues like social acceptability of weapons of mass destruction, body noises, and precision spitting, my husband was made for sterner stuff. He sat the kids down to teach them restaurant etiquette. This is a job for a strong man because although our kids couldn’t cut up their own meat yet, they were masters at finding parental logic-loopholes through cross-examinations that would make Clarence Darrow look like an amateur.

Restaurant Etiquette


Dad: “Unfold your napkin and keep it on your lap.”

Child No. 1: “What if you put something in your mouth that tastes so terrible you know if you swallow it you’ll throw up so you want to spit it into your napkin but your napkin fell on the floor and the dog ate it?”

Dad: “Uh…”


Dad: “You should always talk to the person sitting on each side of you.”

Child No. 2: “What if it’s someone gross and disgusting like (insert name of any boy in the entire universe) and when I say something nice he punches me? Or what if he passes me the creamed rutabagas even though I’ve said 187 times what will happen if I so much as smell the creamed rutabagas? Or what if he’s eating his creamed rutabagas when suddenly he throws up in them?”

Dad: “Uh…”



Dad: “If you have to sneeze or blow, use a tissue, not your napkin.”

Child No. 3: “What if I don’t have a tissue and it’s an emergency blow?”

Dad: “So okay, use your napkin.”

Child No. 3: “What if I sneeze so fast I can’t even get my napkin and what’s in my mouth goes all over the dress of the person at the next table and I can’t wipe it up because I still have that napkin that Child No. 1 spit something disgusting into?”

Dad: “Uh…”


Child No. 1: “If the person across from you spits watermelon seeds at you, don’t spit them back. They might have his germs on them, so use your own seeds.”

Child No. 2: “Don’t eat creamed rutabagas if you’re wearing white socks.”

Child No. 3: “Keep your knees together if you’ve spit something into your napkin.”

Dad: “Uh…”

Mom: “We can’t wait until you have your own children.”


Another blast from the past! (Originally published in my weekly column, Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, 1991) [Image credit: ebaumsworld.com]