A friend recently gave me the ultimate compliment about my kid. She said he has good bagel manners.

I was as thrilled about this as I am about a good report card.

What are bagel manners, exactly?

Well, a variety of bagels were being served — sesame, poppy, cinnamon raisin and the like. But instead of just grabbing the one he wanted, my son asked my friend which was her favorite, to make sure he didn't take the last of the type she liked.

My friend expressed surprise that a teenage boy would have such good manners, and to tell you the truth, it surprised me too, because like a lot of parents, I don't always see good manners at home.

I could only respond that I've basically spent the last 16 years walking around my house mumbling about the selfish, ungrateful, inconsiderate nature of the average child, and maybe some of that actually sunk into my children's immature brains to the point where they can sometimes pretend to be civilized — at least in other people's houses if not always their own.

"Our children learn a great deal from what they see us say and do," said Paula Levy, a family therapist in Norwalk, Conn., and mother of four ages 16-23. "They internalize these lessons even if they don't acknowledge what we are teaching them. When they are in the comfort of their own home they relax and act as they wish. When they are with others, they want to be accepted and impress, so they use all the skills they have learned."

I wonder if the selfish behavior parents sometimes witness in their children has an evolutionary component. Maybe the only way children ever survived to adulthood among cavemen and wandering tribes was by whining so much that somebody finally threw them some food or gave them a warm place to sleep by the fire.

And maybe that hardwired instinct is what surfaces when they start bugging us for something. It's our job, of course, to mitigate the animal instinct by teaching manners, but it's just so hard to know why our lessons sometimes stick and sometimes don't.

Levy said one way to increase the likelihood of getting kids to do what we want is to "be a consistent role model. They are taking everything in. Use good manners when dealing with your children."

My mom, who grew up in rural Maine, was not a particularly religious person, but whenever we did something she was proud of, she'd smile and nod and quietly say to herself a line from Ecclesiastes: "Cast your bread upon the waters."

Which I always took to mean that when it comes to raising kids, you give them your all, then you send them out into the world. And if you did your job right, maybe some day they will repay your love by behaving in ways that make you proud.

Like, for example, bagel manners.