Advice Columns

Miss Manners: Parents going overboard in teaching politeness in children

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DEAR MISS MANNERS: My son is a polite, respectful and kind-hearted child. As my mother before me, we use the terms “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” only to much older ladies and gentlemen. A simple “yes” or “no” spoken in kindness was always sufficient.

In my nephew’s home (my son’s cousins), the expectation is for their children to use the ma’am/sir terms for every person and for every possible scenario — ad nauseum. They are charged a quarter every single time they do not. I view the cousins as little robots who speak few words other than the constant “Yes, ma’am,” “No, sir,” etc. What is your view on this?

I told my son to respect their home and try his best to please his aunt and uncle when he visits (When in Rome, do as the Romans do). I honestly believe that Southerners have really gone overboard on this.

GENTLE READER: Robots? Do they say “sir” and “ma’am” to the cat and dog? Is that the way they address their playmates?

Miss Manners suspects that the cousins are being reared on pretty much the same system that you taught your son, with the difference, perhaps, that you do not require him to address grown-up relatives that way. And she hopes that you do not give him the job of distinguishing among older and younger grown-ups. Everyone looks old to a child.

But please control your nausea. Certain polite forms are best mastered in the automatic way you call robotic. It is always a great moment for parents when, after years of “Say ‘Thank you,’ dear” and “Do you mean, can you PLEASE have that?” the right words come out of the child’s mouth without his or her having to think about them.

And by the way, if there is any part of the country that suffers an excess of etiquette, Miss Manners has not had the good fortune to encounter it. Fortunately, she does often encounter polite individuals everywhere, and she would not dream of trying to discourage them.

Curious about surgery

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I had cosmetic surgery two weeks ago and have been out of social circulation since then. When questioned, my sister answered that I had “a surgical procedure” and that I was fine.

Last night an acquaintance telephoned me to ask, “What kind of surgery did you have?” I was not prepared for such an intrusive question and gave more information than I intended. The acquaintance is not a discreet person, obviously. How could I have answered her without causing animosity or even more curiosity?

GENTLE READER: “It was very minor. (Miss Manners assures you that this is not a lie. The medical definition of major surgery is when a body cavity is opened.) You’re a dear to worry about me, but I’m fine. Now tell me how you are.”

Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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