In 1958, Maurice Sendak, who would become a legendary writer and illustrator of children's books, teamed with Sesyle Joslin to create a charming guide to social behavior for children called "What Do You Say, Dear?"
Soon to be followed by "What Do You Do, Dear?" these books described awkward situations right out of a child's imagination and then suggested a polite response.
For instance: "You are picking dandelions and columbines outside the castle. Suddenly a fierce dragon appears and blows red smoke at you, but just then a brave knight gallops up and cuts off the dragon's head. What do you say, dear?"
The mannerly reply any fair maiden should have on her lips is revealed on the next page, under a Sendak drawing of a little girl dressed as a damsel curtsying to a little boy dressed as a knight: "Thank you very much."
Described on the title page as "book of manners for all occasions," it is indeed that.
If a gentleman introduces you to a baby elephant, you say, "How do you do."
If the patient you have saved by bandaging his dinosaur bite says thank you, you respond, "You're welcome."
If you bump into a crocodile while shopping downtown, you say, "Excuse me."
If the queen invites you to dinner and serves four courses of spaghetti and you cannot eat another bite, you say, "May I please be excused?"
In a household where I spend most of my time encouraging my children to find a word to use in place of "butt" (as in, "I'm going to pound your butt," "Move your butt" and "butt-head"), you can imagine how out-of-date these charming little books seem to my kids.
When I read them to my son, he screwed up his face in utter incomprehension. When I read them to my daughter, she thought they were riotously funny.
Having failed in these difficult times to civilize my own children, I have thought that I might do well to update the work of Sendak and Joslin. Perhaps other mothers might find success where I have not.
With that in mind, I have taken tender moments from my family life and from the lives of other mothers and written a book called, "WHAT Did You Say, Dear?"
Since scraping a bar of soap over the teeth of an insolent child is no longer an acceptable technique, you need to shout the word "WHAT" in shock and rage so that your children will get the message that you disapprove of their language and tone of voice.
Here are a few examples from my "children's handbook of unacceptable back talk." I am hoping Maurice Sendak will illustrate.
You father's favorite uncle, who lives in New York and shops at Saks Fifth Avenue, sends you clothes for Christmas. Purple silk shirt, purple paisley vest and black silk trousers.
When you try it on for your mother, you look for all the world like a child model. What do you say, dear?
"I don't think so."
Your father has come home from a long and lonely business trip, arriving in the middle of your favorite cartoon show. All he wants is a hug, a kiss and a little conversation from his daughter, his princess. What do you say, dear?
"Dad, don't even think about it."
Your mother suggests that you might begin contributing to the commonweal by emptying the dishwasher. What do you say, dear?
"You're not serious, are you?"
Dad comes home late, as he too often does, to find something other than domestic bliss beyond his threshold. The kitchen is a mess and so is your mother. What do you say, dear?
"Dad, Mom's on the edge. We'd better eat at the mall."
Your mother says that she is, after all, paying a math tutor to help you with your algebra and she wishes you would put more effort into your homework. What do you say, dear?
"You'll get over it."
Your loving mother finds you reading in bed at the end of a long day for both of you.
She approaches you tenderly and asks for a good-night kiss. You are a 14-year-old boy and such a display of affection is awkward for you. What do you say, dear?
And, finally. Your mother gathers you into the car for your regular trip to the allergist, the man who helps you breathe easier. What do you say, dear?
"Oh, great. That butt-head."