Table manners aren’t a stuffy past time. I believe that proper tabletime etiquette will help my boys feel more confident in social situations, avoid those raised eyebrows from neighboring tables when we’re out to dinner, and most importantly, help prepare them for when that first date rolls around (please, please, not for another two decades). Teaching table manners doesn’t have to wait until kids are tweens either; in fact, by that time I think it will take more work to break bad table habits. Instead, I vote for starting early — I’m talking age 2 — and raising kids who are polite and enjoyable to around my table at home or when we’re out dinning with others.
In our house, we use three main techniques to teach table manners: teaching the skill, explaining the reason behind it, and role-playing. We also rely on older siblings to help set an example for younger siblings, a method that occasionally backfires when being older means you know how to burp the alphabet. We aren’t crazy strict about it, but we do set behaving properly at the table as a family expectation. Here are some of the table manners we’re working on in our house.
1. Saying please and thank you
Teaching this basic is no-brainer, but based on many park play dates and preschool get-togethers I’ve been too, many parents seem to start too late. Kids as young as 2-years-old can often learn to say “please” and “thank you”. Yes, it will take lots of practice and reminders about the “magic word”, but you’ll thank yourself those times that your 5-year-old does it automatically. Just be prepared to model this one – and have your kids call you out when you forget.
2. Using a napkin
This was one of those skills that I forgot we needed to explicitly teach our boys. When your hands are dirty, you would naturally wipe them on the thing specifically designed for this purpose, right? Wrong. It took a few weeks of picking up pristinely-folded, clean napkins at the end of dinner and scrubbing out a myriad of food stains from shirts before I put the two together and realized what was happening. Now we start dinner with a reminder for the whole family to put napkins in laps or – for my hard-habit-to-break-shirt-wipers – tucked into their shirt collars.
3. Holding silverware properly
Learning to use silverware is a multi-step process. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, between the ages of 12 months and 2 years, your child will start to learn how to hold a spoon or fork and use it with increasing success to get food from the plate to their mouth. This is a fabulous feat because – hurray! – you can now spend your mealtime actually eating instead of feeding someone else. But just like kids move from holding a pencil in their fist to learning how to hold a pencil correctly in their fingertips, silverware skills also need refinement as kids get older. We recently had a dinnertime lesson on fork holding, moving my 7-year-old from the “Me-hungry-going-to-stab-meat-with-fork” hold to the “So-kind-of-you-to-invite-me-to-your-gathering” hold. Next up, using the knife and fork together.
4. Not talking with your mouth full
This lesson practically teaches itself. When my 4-year-old tries to tell us about his day with a taco in his mouth, no one at the table can understand him. We reinforce the goal of not talking with his mouth full by telling him we can’t understand him – even when we can – and that he’ll have to finish chewing first. Kids will quickly learn that if they have something they want others to hear, they’ll need to have a food-free mouth to say it.
5. Asking for something, instead of reaching for it
While I am a big fan of teaching my boys to do things themselves, reaching halfway across the table for the milk or BBQ sauce is not one of those things. Instead in our house, we’re working on asking for things to be passed to you. This provides even more opportunities to practice “please” and “thank you” and has dramatically lowered the number of spilled milk glasses and sleeves dragged through sauce.
6. What counts as appropriate dinnertime talk
I love dinnertime talk with my family, but oh, the conversations that happen with three boys around the table! This year we’re working on both appropriate topics of conversation (school: yes, farts: no) as well as not interrupting others or dominating the conversation. My three boys give us plenty of “opportunities” to work on teaching these skills.
7. Eating food you don’t like, and being polite about it
Whether it’s a new recipe I try at home or we’re having dinner at a friend’s house, I want my boys to know how to politely handle a situation where they don’t love the meal. This mainly consists of helping them refrain from blatant criticisms like “This smells disgusting!” and “Do we have to eat that?” and the occasional Oscar-worthy barf sound.
8. Thanking the host
I love cooking, but it takes work and so it’s nice when the boys send a “thank you” my way at the end of the meal. Even more so, if we’re having dinner at someone else’s house. Luckily, my husband has taken the lead on this one, quietly reminding the boys to say “thanks for dinner” when I finally get the last dish on the table and sit down to join them.