A great many devoted parents make sacrifices so that their children can have the enriching experiences provided by after-school athletic and cultural activities. They sacrifice time, energy and money, ferrying the children around, buying them equipment, encouraging them, practicing with them, and standing around waiting for them - all so that the children will grow and learn.

Some of them also sacrifice their manners and morals. This enables the children to learn irresponsibility and grow into menaces.Miss Manners has always been the sole defender of stage mothers and Little League fathers, and, as they came along, soccer moms and backstage fathers. She never understood why it is presumed reprehensible to allow children to develop and pursue activities requiring skill, discipline, work, accountability and fairness.

She has also noticed that, far from pushing their children, most of these parents are being mightily pulled into these worlds. With or without prompting, their children oddly consider such activities more exciting than what are considered to be the normal young people's sport (watching television) and art (strolling malls looking at mer-chan-dise).

But competitive parenting has turned too aggressive for Miss Manners to ignore. It is no longer a question of overly rambunctious cheering or sympathetic partisanship, but of teaching the kind of behavior that gets champions fined and divas fired - fighting authority, flouting rules, not showing up when expected and, not infrequently, using violence. So if the objective were to give the child professional training, it would be counterproductive.

Anyway, that is not often a reasonable objective. Few children will be offered opportunities that will allow their parents to turn professional with their coaching. But if they are willing to sacrifice that possibility, they can teach the children skills that really will help them become stars of any field in which they have sufficient ability.

Miss Manners admits that the ability to organize one's time in order to accomplish what one wants, and the responsibility to live up to commitments ought not to give people an advantage in the working world. Without everybody's having them, that world doesn't work very well. (As you may have noticed, when trying to find reliable workers at any level.)

So parents can help their children most by sacrificing less. Extra activities should be returned to the realm of privilege, requiring the children to wheedle and promise. Let them plan the schedule and do whatever reminding it takes to execute it. Let them learn the rules and take any consequences for breaking them. It is a parent's job to see that a child meets all the requirements of school and family obligations, but extras should be earned.

Miss Manners realizes that it takes practice for a parent to develop the callousness to say, "I'm not surprised you got kicked out - you're always late for rehearsal" and "It doesn't matter what you or I thought - if the umpire says you're out, you're out."

But the sacrifice is worth making. If you can't turn your children into artists or athletes, you can at least turn them into champion planners.

Dear Miss Manners: For the past several years, our family has had this discussion (argument!) we would like resolved. When one goes to a family restaurant and eats spareribs, is it OK to lick the sauce off your fingers? Finger lickin' tasty!!

Gentle reader: Finger lickin' - nasty!!

Miss Manners does acknowledge that it is not improper to eat spareribs with the hands at family dinners, whether the family is one's own or the restaurateurs'. She acknowledges that a mannerly person could steady a rib with a finger which thus found its way briefly into the mouth. She acknowledges that a mannerly person could then steady a rib with a different finger which thus finds its way briefly into the mouth. And a third. And a fourth. (But not a fifth, which would be excessive.)

However, she refuses to acknowledge that a mannerly person ever licks his or her fingers at the table.