Yes, Gentle Reader, Miss Manners is at it again

My, my, Miss Manners is prolific isn't she? Barely has the dust settled from the rollicking entrance of the first etiquette epistle, ''Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,'' than we are inundated by 389 pages of ''Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.''

Oh, indeed.

One can almost feel one's metaphorical knuckles being rapped. Not for failing to use one's fish fork correctly - that was discussed previously - but for violating the rules of the baby-sitting co-op. Or commiting faux pas at parent-teacher conferences. The list might be endless. Or at least worth 389 pages.

Gentle Reader, as Miss Manners herself is wont to say, press on. For this tome on decorum that is receiving all sorts of highly favorable book reviews has at its core nothing less than the ''passing on of civilization'' as we know it. Or at least as we knew it prior to the '60s, a decade that, according to Miss Manners, was ''without rules.''

As a tonic to the aforementioned plight, Miss Manners, who in real life is the syndicated columnist and novelist Ms. Judith Martin, offers her ''primer for everyone worried about the future of civilization.'' What this heir apparent to the etiquette doyennes Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt proffers is highly practical but spirited counsel on modern-day manners and morals common to that process known as child-rearing. Wit is arguably one of Ms. Martin's strong suits , as is her no-nonsense advice.

''The baby doesn't think, 'Well I'm hungry, but if I wait a few hours they'll be less reluctant to get up,' '' Ms. Martin says, looking very proper during a recent interview in her high-necked blouse and antique garnet earrings. ''It's very hard to teach a child to let somebody play with his toys or to wait. But that's what civilization is all about, and you have to start very young.''

Talking with Ms. Martin is no schmooze over the back fence. Just as she crisply stated her intent in her book: ''A good parent owes it to a child to teach manners as an interesting and useful skill, and not as a subject that is invoked to condemn whatever the child happens to be doing when the adult is feeling irritable,'' so does she mince no words in person.

''Things were in a rock-bottom state when I first went into the etiquette trade six years ago,'' she says, sounding not unlike a modern Mary Poppins, ''but now there is a realization that you don't have to live in a world where everyone is rude.''

In waging her genteel war on rudeness - which, by the way, does not permit ''being ruder back'' - Ms. Martin has modeled her second etiquette book on her column format: a brief commentary on a particular social breach followed by answers from ''Miss Manners'' to the ''Gentle Reader,'' one of 200 letters she receives weekly. Interspersed with her advice on the etiquette of braces, car pools, and the like, Ms. Martin tosses in counsel that will warm parents' hearts everywhere: ''The chief tools of child-rearing are nagging and example.'' ''Lecturing, in Miss Manners's opinion, is one of the rewards of child-rearing....''

However, lest anyone think the author is one-sided, Ms. Martin throws out some for the children who may be listening: ''Properly done, a sulk is wildly irritating to the parent ... the ideal revenge of a theoretically powerless person on a supposedly powerful one.''

It hardly need be said that Ms. Martin, herself the mother of ''two perfect children'' - well, that's how the book jacket reads - politely snorts at the ''Jean-Jacques Rousseau school of etiquette,'' the belief that natural behavior is beautiful and that civilization, including manners, spoils man's essential goodness. Unfortunately, those who pay the price for believing such nonsense, says Ms. Martin, are those children now in their late teens and early 20s who ''were told that etiquette is outdated and you just do whatever you feel like. Well, these people have grown up and discover that it's not true, and they're at a terrible handicap.'' Job interviews, romances, all are in jeopardy, says Ms. Martin, when one is bereft of a general system of etiquette.

''I'm really on the child's side in the book,'' she says with a smile. ''I thought I'd better go back to (teaching) child-rearing or I'll be doing this remedial work forever,'' she says by way of explanation. ''I've got novels to write and rocking on the porch to do.''

While addressing herself to the concerns of the nuclear family, Ms. Martin also includes those in less-than-traditional familial situations. Stepparents, second marriages, custody battles - none of it raises an eyebrow with Ms. Martin.

''(The nuclear family) has always been the American ideal,'' she says, ''but more people are getting divorced than ever, and the question has come up that aren't there families possible other than mama and papa and four children? People who are in these situations want to have a decent family life also.''

As the daughter of a UN diplomat, Ms. Martin early on acquired a working knowledge of proper social etiquette. ''After you've entertained Mrs. So-and-So who doesn't speak anything but Flemish, life holds no fear,'' she says with a laugh. She also became fascinated by historical etiquette. ''I quickly learned that if you wanted to learn what a given society was doing at a given time, you looked at their etiquette books, and what they were being told not to do they were doing. That's how this little hobby got started.''

But it wasn't until the end of her 25-year career as a feature writer and sometime theater critic at the Washington Post, where she covered ''everything it's possible to write about in a newspaper except news,'' that Ms. Martin broke into the etiquette business in earnest. Her thrice-weekly column, ''Miss Manners ,'' began in 1978 and is now syndicated across the country.

Beyond her indefatigable ability to advise readers anxious about the correct attire for an afternoon wedding, Ms. Martin doesn't hesitate to lecture on etiquette's political aspects. In a recent speech given at Harvard, she addressed America's unique etiquette requirements, ''The Problem That Baffled Jefferson.''

''Historically in Europe there were the middle and lower classes who worked and the upper class that sustained the whole social side of life. In America we have a tradition where all men work. How do you adapt an etiquette system based on classes so it becomes appropriate for a democracy? It's a question that interests me extremely, and a question we still haven't solved.''

With women's growing presence in the workforce, Ms. Martin says, additional etiquette questions are being raised today. ''In business, etiquette is based on rank not gender,'' she says crisply.

She also predicts that our social etiquette system based on gender will yield to one based on age. ''What I would like to do is speed along the structure of American society and the working world so that people can have a decent life that is a mixture of the domestic and the career life.''

Does Ms. Martin considered herself pivotal in promoting that change?

''Well, I don't want to be immodest, but I'm trying my best.''

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