Dear Miss Manners: We always have holiday dinners at my brother’s house because it is convenient for our elderly relatives. But we always have the same problems.
My brother, who is a designer and a perfectionist, seems to expect us to get all excited about a table covered with lace, china, candles and floral arrangements. How can we ask him and his wife to have a more casual event? How do we get them to lighten up? How do we convey to them that it is more important to value their young relatives rather than their material belongings?
He puts slipcovers on the chairs for the children (there are a lot, ages 3 to 10) and serves their food on decorated plastic “kid” dishes instead of china. Just because our child is a mere 5 years of age doesn’t mean she should be treated like a second-class citizen.
The children sometimes don’t like “grown-up” food and we parents make trips to the kitchen for cereal, sandwiches, etc. Also, the children sometimes cry or complain, as little children are wont to do.
After dinner, the hostess tries to make someone feel guilty enough to help her with the dishes. Everyone usually brings a dish for the dinner, so the hosts are responsible mostly for setup and cleanup. If she would use everyday dishes instead of china, she could use the dishwasher.
Even though we are family, we would like to be treated properly like guests and be allowed to chat after dinner. We are usually busy tending to the children as well.
Right in front of the parents, my brother will say to the children, rather self-righteously, “Johnny, please don’t play with the china-cabinet door” or “Please don’t touch the stereo.” They expect the children never to run in the house (ostensibly for the “children’s safety,” though we think it is for the safety of the hosts’ priceless lamps and furniture). It is not a large house, and the children understandably become rambunctious after being inside all day when it is too cold to go out.
The hosts sometimes look to us to enforce their “house rules.” The “entertainment” provided by the hosts is not of interest to the children (for example, puzzles that are old and too difficult, a few tired crayons and dull coloring books, etc.) We have let the hosts know that some age-appropriate toys might keep the children occupied, but they have ignored our suggestion.
After talking to other parents at the preschool and at work, we have found that these situations seem to occur in many, many households on the holidays. Many people recall the same treatment from their grandparents; that is, “Children should be seen and not heard.”
Gentle Reader: Miss Manners must have missed the “not heard” part. Does your brother not allow the children to join the conversation? Snubbing the children would indeed be dreadful evidence of your accusation that he cares only about material things.
But all you reported was that he does not want them to break things, run wild, or demand special meals. And that he and his wife go all out to make things nice for the entire extended family (as no one else seems to be willing to do), thus giving these children their only exposure to the kind of festive holiday that used to be a treasured feature of family life at all economic levels.
Couldn’t you help just a little? Suggesting that they dumb down their hospitality and buy more up-to-date toys does not count. Teaching your children simple childhood manners (don’t race through the house, watch out for fragile things, don’t tell hosts you hate their food) and issuing reminders on the spot would be more helpful.
If Miss Manners sympathizes with your brother, it is not against your children, but on their behalf. You do them no favor by encouraging them to think only of how others treat them and not of how they should treat others.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Feature Syndicate