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The Urban Etiquette Handbook


How do you turn down a playdate with a child whose behavior you don’t like?
If you can’t feign scheduling difficulty, decline the playdate in a way that the other parent could possibly interpret as complimentary, such as “I’m afraid your son is so much bigger and stronger than my poor little runt—the last time Nick and Ely played, Ely had bruises for a week . . . ” By the time your child is about 7 years old, you should be letting him pick his own friends anyway, in which case he can be assumed to act in his own physical self-interest.

Whom do you invite to your child’s birthday party?
Assuming he’s under the age at which he’s already formed a naturally apparent group of friends, the standard expectation is to invite the whole class. If this is not physically or financially feasible, shrink the group size by inviting only those classmates who fit a limiting but nonjudgmental criterion: only kids who live within neighborhood-radius X, only kids from the carpool, only girls (though not if your child is male).

When can you bring children to a dinner party?
If the people throwing the party have kids of their own and your child is young enough that he’s guaranteed to fall asleep within minutes of arrival, it’s acceptable. If there’s even a chance that the unfamiliar setting or the presence of peers will adrenalize your kid into becoming a homewrecker, it’s incumbent upon you to ask whether he can come along (“Will there be other kids around?”). If the hosts don’t have kids, assume you aren’t welcome to bring yours unless some sort of babysitting crisis occurs (and bear in mind that you will thereby be limiting your ability to use a contrived babysitting crisis as an excuse to ditch future events).

How do you find out what exactly your friend’s kid did to get sent home from college/boarding school?
Raise the subject so quickly that you can plausibly feign ignorance—casually inquire as to how the kid in question is doing. If the family doesn’t tell you, you’re not allowed to ask straight-up—you’ll have to rely on gossip or, if the misbehavior in question was of sufficiently impressive scope, media accounts or widely circulated Internet video footage.

What are the rules for disciplining other kids when their parents are around?
The same rules apply to adjusting other people’s yoga poses when the teacher is around: It’s just not done. The only exception is in matters of safety when the other parent isn’t paying attention (throwing toys, biting). As they always say (and by “they” we mean Oprah), the only person you can truly change is yourself; similarly, the only kids you can change are your own. If the parents are deadbeat do-as-you-willers, all you can do is make sure your own kid takes away the lesson, like, “That little boy is not being nice by doing that, but we know not to rob liquor stores, right?” As a last resort, you can always decide it’s time to go home.

What social obligations do you have to a stepparent or stepchild you don’t like?
As a parent of a new stepchild, you made the choice to enter the family, and you can’t eat just the frosting because you don’t like the cake. Attend whatever school plays, birthday parties, and gatherings your spouse does. Never be rude or argumentative with a stepchild in front of his friends. You’ll only end up isolating yourself, which, one would presume, was not the point of remarrying in the first place. As a child of a new stepparent, you didn’t choose the arrangement, so your social obligations are fewer. Be as evasive as you’d like, as long as you don’t try to use the stepparent as an excuse to offend another family member—or you’re under age 18, in which case honor, obey, and pray for the quick passage of time.

How little money can you give to your child’s private school?
Swallow your fury, mentally berate the social-climbing slimeballs who make New York such a dishonesty-filled place to live, give a bare minimum of $300 at annual-fund time, and consider it part of tuition. But no matter what you do or don’t give, the school is never allowed to hold it against your kid.

What if you don’t like one of your teenager’s friends?
If you merely don’t like that he’s wearing his jeans under his butt cheeks or has weird parents, you’re not on solid ground. If, however, the friend is obnoxious or disrespectful to you, smokes, cuts class, or seems to have increasing piercings or tattoos (i.e., high-risk behavior you must admit you did on your way to hitting the hard stuff yourself), you have every right to tell your kid you don’t approve—and explain your reasoning. If said friend really is bad news, don’t let up. You’ll be the bad cop, but that’s the point. Think of all the people you know who say, “My mom/dad is my best friend in the whole world.” Are their marbles in place? Exactly.

What are you obligated to tell your kids when you write the will? If you’re a kid, whom can you ask about wills and what can you ask?
Estate squabbling can tear a family apart as few other problems can, and the best way to avoid that is to work out as many details as possible in advance. Parents should always tell, and kids should always ask (though don’t be glib about it—the middle of a long weekend together, or after a period of exceptionally frequent calls home, will get the best results). That’s an immediate-family-only rule, though: Weaseling for information about grandparents or rich aunts’ wills, directly or indirectly, is just morbid.

How do you get friends to write school recommendation letters for your child without being crass?
Powerful people don’t necessarily mind being reminded of their extensive influence, so don’t be too shy about asking. If it’s not someone you’re very familiar with, though, put the request in writing (as in actual writing, on a real piece of paper), emphasizing your seriousness—but acknowledge that he may be too busy to deal with your imposition. And don’t be surprised if you’re asked to write the letter yourself: That happens pretty much all the time, which is why the value of a recommendation letter gets more watered-down every day.

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