So, let’s just cut right to the chase here. I’m the mother of four children, three of whom are elementary-aged boys. If I’m qualified to write a post on the subject of table manners, it’s because I’m in the thick of the battle, not because I have it figured out. It’s a work in progress. There’s a learning curve. There are days when our dinners are lovely and polite, and there are days when I wonder if we should just eat in the garage.
With the holidays approaching, parents may find themselves a little aware of their children’s table behavior, since they suddenly have the privilege of viewing it through the eyes of Aunt Fern. Likely, Aunt Fern isn’t amused by dinnertime flatulence.
The truth is, of course, that teaching kids table manners should be a year-round task, not something that suddenly becomes important when company comes over. My goal in parenting is not to impress Aunt Fern or anyone else, it’s to raise responsible, courteous people. A small part of that is being able to sit at a table without looking like a caveman. And manners matter. They’re more than social cues or traditions, they’re common-sense ways to express courtesy. With that as a goal, here are a few things I try to keep in mind with my own kids:
1. The goal is to consider others. Children may think table manners are a list of do’s and don’ts we’ve constructed to make them crazy, but of course, that is ultimately not the point. It’s helpful to explain that we learn table manners because it’s the kind thing to do. Mealtime is a time of concentrated togetherness, in which we have a good opportunity to be thoughtful. We don’t chew with our mouth open, because others don’t want to see it. We don’t put our elbows on the table, because it crowds others. We don’t burp out loud, because it is unappetizing. (Did you hear me, son? We don’t burp out loud, because it is unappetizing.)
2. Take it one skill at a time. Don’t just do a mad scramble to learn table manners two weeks before Thanksgiving. Work on it year-round. Take one "manner" each week, and give concentrated focus on that particular behavior at each meal.
3. Keep your motives pure. Are you harping on manners because you want to look like Super Mom at the next family meal? Take it from me, "parenting to impress" will backfire. EVERY time. Often spectacularly so.
4. Keep your expectations realistic. They’re kids. It’s a learning curve, remember? Expect, even require, good behavior, but remember that good habits may take a while to form. That said…
5. …create consequences. Consistently bad table manners are a form of disrespect. In our family, a repeat offense will buy you a one-way ticket to having dinner alone, in another room. Tailor your consequences for your child’s age, of course, but stand your ground.
So, what about you? What’s your best idea for instilling table manners in your own kids? Do you find yourself getting a little more stressed about the subject closer to the holidays?