Some years ago, there was an outbreak of nostalgia in society - not only, as is customary, for the junk items of generations past but for their owners. The extended family.
People were lamenting the isolation of what is not so gently called the nuclear family, and musing about how nice it would be to have grandparents and other relatives within easy reach, if not actually in the same dwelling, as in societies they admired from a distance.Miss Manners found this curious, considering that in this particular society, family attachments are considered to cease when the young become teenagers. "They'll hate you," well-wishers say to those parents who are not yet at the stage to receive condolences for having the children around, or congratulations on having gotten rid of them.
The normal ambition of children is supposed to be to leave home as soon as possible, to the extent that those who tarry are considered damaged. Their destination is assumed to be chosen without regard to its distance from their family of origin, unless it is to ensure mental health by being far enough to make visiting difficult.
Now that paradoxical wish for clan living has come true for many people, although perhaps not in the way they had envisioned. The thought - extremely appealing to Miss Manners, who had never bought into the idea of natural antagonism between the generations - was of a family where the old would share their wisdom (not to mention household and child-care duties), while the young offered their more robust protection.
Here's what has happened instead:
Grandparents found themselves to be the primary guardians of the children of their divorced or never-married children, sometimes when the parents of the grandchildren were young enough to require parenting themselves, and sometimes in the total absence of those parents.
Grown-up children found themselves to be the primary guardians of parents in need of nursing care.
Grown children found themselves living with their parents, not for the satisfactions of continued family life but in some sort of landlord-boarder arrangement, which both would frankly characterize as being done only out of financial necessity.
Amid all the talk of burdens and mooching and separation anxieties, Miss Manners has also heard about extended families whose motivation for living together is love and compassion. But she recognizes that even they are not immune to the special etiquette problems of having more than one grown-up generation in a household.
The difficulty is in redistributing the amount of autonomy, jurisdiction, responsibility and authority that exists between parents and minor children without altering the respect owed to all members of the family and particularly to the elders.
Adult children acquire more autonomy and responsibility, both of which may have to be lessened for the oldest members. Nevertheless, a family household is not a boarding house, where people are supposed to pretend they have no interest in one another's private lives.
Generally, the generation that established the household, parents or grandparents, has jurisdiction over how it is used, such as the distribution of space. But they are not hotel owners who arrange things as they please, inviting anyone who doesn't like it to leave; they are supposed to check that they are acting in everyone's interest.
And while the household rules may have been developed by the eldest generation in residence, the household is not a business controlled by those with the most stock. Among its grown-up members, the trick is to accommodate opinions through compromise, not through a dictatorship or majority rule.
Each family must make its adjustments to take into account the others' preferences and requirements.
Miss Manners is not claiming that any of this is easy - psychologically or logistically.
But the usual way of doing it, distributing power according to how much money each contributes, is antithetical to family life. Families may pool their resources, but even those who are hard up are not supposed to sell power and respect in the family hierarchy.
Dear Miss Manners: Is it possible to show appreciation for a gift without giving the impression that you would like to receive more of the gift in the future? If you let it be known that you like penguins, are you destined to have a house full of penguin items?
I recently admired a friend's porcelain figurine, but I wondered if my reaction was right to indicate that, though I knew she liked it, I didn't want a lot of "collectibles" given to me. Sometimes, people seem to want others to collect something so they will know what to give them.
Is there a way to react politely but with not enough enthusiasm? How do you say "thank you" because you truly do appreciate the thought, but you do not want more of the same?
Gentle Reader: This is the sort of problem that has led to gift registries, "cash only" and other modern atrocities. People who plan to give presents are supposed to listen for clues, so if you have someone who is both alert and generous, you do have to be careful as well as gracious.
Try: "This is perfect! It really completes my penguin collection. I love it, and now I'm going to have such fun thinking what I might want to take up next."