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Little Miss Manners

I imagine that long ago in a medieval castle a ravenous page grabbed a leg of roasted chicken before the queen had her fill. The greedy hand was chopped off, the page chastened, and the world was never the same. News quickly spread among the other servants. Voila! Manners were born.

Manners are being born in our house too, but greedy hands are not even being tapped, much less removed from their arms. We insist and remind, cajole and reward.

"I want that!" Sophie shouts, pointing at a toy on the ground.

"Use your manners," we admonish.

"Pwease can I have one of that monkey?" she queries.

Since the lesson is on politeness and not syntax, we usually reward her with her request. I bring her the monkey, let her wear rain boots to the beach, sing the ABC song four more times, and give her twelve sticky drinks from my glass. But only if she says please and uses an appropriate tone of voice.

Now that she has figured out the secret password to success, she is testing it unabashedly. "Pwease can I have one of that new shoes?" she asked in the store the other day. I had exactly three minutes to get myself a pair of dress shoes for the graduation we were attending that evening, and Sophie had wiggled out of her stroller and was laying out six unmatched glittery, high heeled pumps on the floor.

"No, baby. Get back in the stroller," I said.

She collapsed into a fit of sorrow and rage, sobbing "Pwease, pwease, pwease can I have one of that shoes?" Embarrassed and apologetic, I grabbed the nearest matching size nines, hoping they'd match my dress, and fled to the cashier.

Then there's the food thing. Yesterday at lunch I laid out a nice spread for Sophie: carrots, cheese sticks and a nectarine, with milk on the side.

For myself I had a couple of salami slices and cheese. Sophia looked at her own plate, then eyed my food and announced, "I want one of that!" I looked down at my own meager fare. I would have killed for a bite of the nectarine, but it's not on my current list of allowed foods. Now she wanted some of my lunch.

Reluctantly I reminded her, "Use your manners, honey."

"Pwease can I have one of that?" she rejoined. I gave her a small piece of salami, which she chopped with greasy lips in a flash. "I want some more of that, pwease," she announced.

A little fire started to burn in me. It wasn't just the injustice--she had a far more interesting lunch than I, and I craved hers--I was raised among four active, hungry siblings, and learned early on to covet my food. Food sharing was such an issue in our house that my mother gave us each our own cartons of milk, on which we inscribed our names in indelible marker. I learned to measure food carefully, predicting about how much I would eat, and how long it would last.

Now when I buy groceries, I think the same way. If everyone eats his or her allotment each morning, the box of cereal should last for a week (it never does). The fruit will be ripe on Wednesday and should be eaten before the weekend. My methods depend on people eating exactly what I've planned, nothing more or less. Sophia, however, knew nothing of my careful planning.

"More, pwease!" she yelled.

I didn't want to give her another piece of my salami. "No, honey. Eat your own lunch," I said, but not forcefully enough.

"PWEASE can I want some more of that, PWEASE!" she insisted, as though it were my hearing that was interfering this time.

"Use a polite tone," I insisted back, happy for the distraction. I popped three more salamis in my mouth and pushed the baby carrots into an appealing circle. "Look, Sophie, an orange circle. Yum, yum," She flicked the orange circle aside and reached for another round salami.

"Pwease," she said in the most civilized, sweet voice, "Mommy, can I have some of that circle?"

Busted, I gave her another sliver of my precious food and swallowed my resentment along with the shame I felt for having it. She's two years old, knows how to play my game and win.

I send a plea to the great beyond: please give me the patience to teach her to be better than me. PWEASE?



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