Little Miss Manners

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“Don’t talk with your mouthful, Mommy,” my 5-year-old daughter says over dinner.

“Whummppt?” I ask as a broccoli floret tumbles from my mouth.

I get that it’s rude to talk with food in your mouth. However, I have a lot to say. And if I never made exceptions to the rules of etiquette, I’d either be starving or silent. Starving people are unpleasant to be around and silent people–however polite–are downright boring.

So I’m flexible. If I’m eating dinner with Bradley Cooper (please God, let me eat dinner with Bradley Cooper!), I’ll keep my mouth closed (to keep the drool in check). But when sitting with my family, I’m a little more relaxed. We all are. Ray hunches over his plate so far that I’m not sure how the food even makes it to his stomach, making a few hairpin turns along the way. And my daughter likes to feed the cat from her fork and mix a “magic potion” with the castaways from her plate. But we’re at home–the place where we share one another’s lip balm and only bother to close the bathroom door when we fear company. Maybe we’re heathens, but by nature, heathens are happy.

The trouble is, my husband and I know the difference between at-home etiquette and outside-the-home etiquette. Our 5-year-old daughter does not.

Last week we attended an open house for a prospective elementary school. Ava and I sat in the front row of the library, attentively listening to the principal discuss the school’s virtues to about 50 parents. As the principal boasted of her students’ impressive test scores, I heard a loud noise emanating from Ava.

“RRRRRIIIIIIIIII–” To my horror, Ava was in mid-toot. On a hardwood chair.

Before she could even finish, I leaned over and whispered, “Stop that.”

“–IIIIIIIIPPPPPPP!” She smiled up at me. Everyone pretended not to notice.

Not 30 seconds later, she started up her engine again: “RRRRRRIIIIIIIIPPPPP!”

“You do that again and you’re going to go in timeout for the rest of your life,” I hissed in her ear.

She puddled up, hurt that I would lash out at her for such a fantastic performance. Such magnitude. Such tenor.

It’s my own fault. At home, she refers to her toots as her “secret weapon”–an excellent defense against unwanted tickles. And she creates nature’s Jacuzzi in the bathtub. I find this all very funny, which, in retrospect, probably brought me to that moment in the library.

After the presentation the principal “forgot” to hand me an application.

“Look,” I explained to Ava when we were back in the car, “Everybody picks, poops, toots and burps. But you can’t do it in public–”

“What does ‘public’ mean?” she asks.

“I mean when you’re outside the house. It’s not polite. People will judge you and think you’re gross.”

I thought of Paul, that pasty kid in my kindergarten class who let one fly during circle time. The teacher instructed him to “go use the bathroom” (seriously, there’s no correlation people). It’s the only thing I remember from kindergarten, and no one wants to be immortalized for that, even someone as forgettable as Paul.

Ava seemed to understand my point. But then her birthday rolled around and she was given a Whoopee Cushion. Subsequently, it reignited the infatuation with flatulation. (Thanks, Lisa)

The Whoopee Cushion made its debut at a private country club where Ava takes tennis lessons (we are not members, just leeches). I was waiting for her tennis coach to call her onto the court when a raucous noise echoed over the golf course. The group of mothers sitting courtside was so startled they practically jumped out of their seats. Either they’ve never seen a Whoopee Cushion or their refined children have never ripped one. As I see it, it’s a tragedy either way.

Still, there’s a time and a place. I snatched the Whoopee Cushion from Ava.

“But it wasn’t me,” she whined. “It was the Whoopee Cushion!”

Back when Ava was younger, the rules were black and white. We don’t hit, we don’t throw food, we don’t put stickers on the cat. But the older and smarter my child gets, the harder my job becomes. Now every rule is laced with nuances, double standards and other such complexities. We’re allowed to hit in self-defense, we can participate in parent-sponsored food fights, and we can put stickers on the cat as long as everyone is there to enjoy the show.

It’s therefore hard to explain to Ava the rules of etiquette. Yes, everyone toots, but in a civilized society we pretend that we don’t. We go home with stomachaches and take copious amounts of Bean-O. We fight nature tooth and nail because sometimes nature is gross. I don’t mind my child employing her secret weapon at the house; after all, I’ve changed her diaper, cleaned her vomit and de-boogered her nose. But I’m not interested in doing this for anyone else. Nor am I interested in being downwind of a stranger. I suppose that’s the essential difference between the at-home and outside-the-home rules.

So I’ve had to make an addendum to the no-tooting-in-public rule. It applies to both Ava and the Whoopee Cushion. Now if we can just get accepted into kindergarten.
 

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