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Dear Miss Manners: My life partner and I (we are both women) have two children. I gave birth to them via anonymous-donor insemination, and my partner adopted them. They are now 11 months old and 3 1/2 .

It is common, as you know, for strangers as well as acquaintances to offer comments about babies and young children, such as "What a beautiful baby." Sometimes we get questions involving the children's father. If someone says, for example, "Oh, her dad must be so proud," I reply, "Actually, she has two moms, but yes, her other mom is proud of her."

But sometimes that kind of answer won't work. A couple of times I've had questions like, "My, he's such a big baby; is his father very tall?" Since they are clearly talking about his biological father, it doesn't make sense to say that he doesn't have a dad.

I'm aware that as they grow older, my children will be facing such questions themselves, and something like "What color hair does your father have?" might be harder than "Where does your father work?" I would like to come up with a way to handle such queries that I could also teach my children -- preferably a way that maintains their privacy without implying that there is something secretive or wrong about their family arrangement.

Gentle Reader: First, Miss Manners congratulates you on your assumption that there is a difference between privacy and shame. That distinction has been lost on a population that cannot fathom why everyone would not seize every opportunity to deliver autobiographical monologues, and therefore equates dignity with shame.

Then she can assure you that the problem will soon solve itself. Your children won't be much older before there is no one left who hasn't been stung after offering an ordinary pleasantry based on no-longer-reliable assumptions. The number of people who have casually inquired about the health of the missus, only to be treated to a furious recital of her misconduct in the divorce settlement, or who have sent their regards to a husband, thus prompting a litany of complaints about his emotional and financial sins, are increasing daily.

And you wonder why the weather keeps getting more dramatic. It has to, to give us something safe to talk about.

The important thing is to remember that such inquiries are merely pleasantries, not background checks. They are meant to demonstrate goodwill, not to elicit information.

If you offer a show of goodwill in return, none but the most persistent busybodies will pursue a question you declined to answer. Your answer to the questions about height or hair color could be anything fondly maternal, such as "Yes, he just keeps growing so fast," or "She wasblonder as a baby, but it seems to be getting darker," with the comment "I'm not in touch with his father" as a throwaway line if necessary.

The children should be taught that while introducing their parents is a required social skill, and discussing their family arrangements often relevant, describing their conception is neither. All they need say is "I don't know, he's not around," and go on to another topic.

Watch and learn

Dear Miss Manners: My husband has told our granddaughters that they should wear their watches on their right hand and I say they should wear them on their left hand. They are right-handed, so who is right? Please let us know before it's too late for them to learn the right way.

Gentle Reader: Although Miss Manners must disappoint you both, she would like to take the opportunity to congratulate you. You must have extraordinarily well-behaved granddaughters, if this is all you can think of to teach them.

It is true that etiquette has some arcane rules about watch-wearing, such as the one against wearing a visible timepiece in the evening to avoid seeming to ration your social time. However, it has never managed to work up an interest in which wrist is used. Most right-handed people seem to choose the left wrist, but that is a rare matter that etiquette leaves to choice, and grandparents might want to do the same.

Address your etiquette questions to Miss Manners, in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions except through this column.

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