What Aunt Fern Would Want You To Know

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?

{This post is part of BlogHer’s Holiday Survival Guide ’08 series, and an edited version has been posted at BlogHer.}

45 thoughts on “What Aunt Fern Would Want You To Know

  1. Shelly says:

    My mom was always working on our table manners while I was growing up. The lessons usually became intense before Thanksgiving and Christmas when we would be with our very proper Grandmother.
    I always thought it was silly, but as an adult with 4 boys, 3 of are elementary age and 1 who is an adult, I am so thankful she taught me and my sibs.
    I work with my boys all the time, not just at the Holidays. This year our lessons will be a bit more intense as I think they are ready for more detail.
    I know they are paying off because of the comments I get from others. Too bad they don’t use them at home!

  2. Su says:

    Sounds as if you and I are on the same page. We frame all manners as being pleasant to others, and if children chose to be unpleasant to eat with, they may eat in the laundry room as there is no one to offend out there. It is also very cold out there, which is a happy side benefit.

  3. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino says:

    I haven’t done this in awhile, but when my oldest was about 4 we used to eat by candlelight every evening for supper. If she behaved and worked on the behavior that we were addressing – like you suggested, we did one at a time – she got to blow out the candles at the end of the meal. She LOVED this.

  4. Michele says:

    As a fellow mom of 3 rambunctious boys, I know of which you speak! Thank you for reminding me that it is a process, we must keep the long-term goal in mind, and that kids are kids. Love your blog~

  5. Lori L. says:

    Oh, I wish I had good advice, but truth be told, I am feeling the pinch to fine tune my kids’ manners this time of year. The rule of “give em an inch and they’ll take a mile” has never been so true than at the dinner table.
    Our biggest rule right now is that to use a fork, you have to have your bottom in the seat. We had too many near-eyeball-misses. So, I agree with the “one thing at a time,” and for us, eyeball safety has trumped burping.

  6. Wanda says:

    Oh….this to shall pass! I understand that you want it to be successful!
    Manners start way before we get to the table. I have found that courtesy must be instilled even while playing legos. Much of what happens at the dinner table…..is a spill-over from all other activities.
    With boys….we may have to kick it up a notch.
    Remind them that someday….they will want a wife (even though girls have cooties right now) and that she will want him to be polite and gentlemanly at the table.
    That oughta scare em! Just kiddin!
    Don’t fret….it will be ok.

  7. Kari says:

    I tried making the dining room “The Manner Zone” for my own sake. I was trying to cut out flatulence, burping and bickering at least for a short portion of my day. I knew it wouldn’t work when my husband couldn’t even follow the guidelines. My 5 (6 if you count my husband) kids all know HOW to act politely and will while in public (or Grandma’s). Our supper time is goofy and loud and I guess I’ll take that over my sanity while I still have them all at home. I do have to admit, we have some pretty good “bad manner memories”.
    mom to 1 girl and 4 homeschool boys

  8. AmyDe says:

    Too funny! It’s truly an adventure everyday. My friend Andrea (who had 4 teenagers at once – 3 boys) always says “It was a successful visit with Grandma if no one farted at the table!” One day and one lesson and one meal at a time.

  9. Ali says:

    My son hardly sits up let alone sits at a dinner table (he’s 7 months old), but I suspect that my biggest challenge will not be “training” my son, but my husband.
    Shortly after he roped me in and let down his guard (hardly minutes after I said “i do”), he began a most atrocious behavior – belching at the dinner table. The first time he did it I gave him this look like, “did that just come from you?” He looked back at me like, “oops.” But within a week I realized this was something he actually thought was acceptable! And it was confirmed when he did it at the dinner table with his parents present. Surely his mother would scold him. Nope! It didn’t even phase her! Oh, the horror! He was raised this way?!
    So I thought, “that’s it!” I have approximately six months, or so, to train my husband before our son begins catching on. Because I WILL NOT have a child that belches during mealtime. And my husband WILL be on board with this plan to raise a respectable young man.
    Now if only I knew of this disgusting behavior before I accepted the sparkly bling I now wear on my left hand.

  10. chocolatechic says:

    There were a couple of things that we did for our kids to make it fun.
    1. If they didn’t put their napkin on their laps, talked with food in their mouths, etc…they would have to excuse themselves, go into the other room and count to 25. They also had the priviledge of catching us parents ‘misbehaving’ so we parents had to do the same thing. It became a game, and they became more aware of what they were doing.
    2. We would put 5 pennies by their plates. If they didn’t put their napkins on their lap, burped out loud, chewed with their mouths open…etc….they would have to give us a penny. At the end of the meal, they got to keep whatever money was left.
    It was great fun.

  11. Jennie says:

    Manners are huge to me, not just table manners either but we’re diligently working on table manners with our 3.5 year old.
    Manners are definitely a year-round plan for us. Whether we’re eating breakfast at home or out to dinner, manners are always worked on.
    I have no new advice from what you offered.

  12. pam says:

    What you mean we can’t have any food fights???? Not! yes manners start young, and you have to be at it all the time, but there is times you wonder who kids are they anyway? But it does seem like kids don’t have much manners/respect any more; I see it more and more. But its fun to stir things up every once in a while, have soft music playing, candle light; like your boys are going to love that. Reward with a good treat after dinner if they eat right or get to watch a movie together..

  13. Erica says:

    Something that you said reminded me of part of a talk that we had at MOPS recently. The speaker suggested that we find a verse to use as a mission statement for our parenting. She uses Luke 2:52, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men.” She spent a little time on that last phrase, that we should raise our kids to be a blessing, and I’m thinking that good manners is an important part of that. Thanks for the post!

  14. Amy in West TX says:

    Manners at the dinner table was not something I ever gave thought too. I expected my kids to eat like I was taught. Some of the first words my kids learned were Please and Thank You. They are second nature to them now (13, 16, 19). I have had wait staff tell me they have never had such polite kids at their stations, that they usually dread kids. I’ve tried to teach mine that being polite and having nice manners may take just a bit of effort on their part, but will make the person who is serving or dining with them much happier.
    There is a coach who does lunch duty at the middle school who has decided the boys need manners. He requires the boys to pull a chair out and help a girl to her seat. I love that a male teacher is teaching the young men how to behave! It doesn’t seem to happen much anymore.
    I hope in raising my kids, I have done something right in the manners department!

  15. Dawn W says:

    My hubby and I started having “dates” with our kids when they were just little kiddos. My hubby “dates” my daugther, and I “date” my son. It’s more than just a time to work on manners. It’s also a time of one on one with them. And, training for both of them in the art of treating the opposite sex with respect and appropriate boundaries. (We fund these nights out.) Now that my son is a teen, we expect that he plans the date (just as if he would for a “real” date) – where we’re going, reservations if required, etc. Sometimes I throw a “twist” in and tell him ahead of time what his budget is – usually an amount lower than what he was probably expecting – just to force him to be more creative. For my daughter, it’s our plan that she is treated like a princess by her daddy so that she will expect this same level of respect from other males in her future.
    They love it and so do we. I’m thinking I might even insist that these “dates” continue even after they’re adults – for MY benefit, of course! Ha!

  16. Blue Castle says:

    Dinnertime flatulence? Ha! I thought we were the only family with that strange occurence.
    We usually work on manners every night at dinner time. But we still have those embarassing moments when my parents are over and up goes my mom’s eyebrow over something one of the boys did. And I determine to renew the fight to make boys into gentlemen.

  17. T with Honey says:

    One thing that has worked splendidly for me – and only because I am a little kid at heart with a fairly strong sense of humor – is to occasionally have “Bad Manners Night”.
    There are some limits such as no wasting my having a food fight, but chewing with mouths open, using fingers and loud belching are all encouraged. “Excuse me” is forbidden.
    It works REALLY well because everyone gets to break free, have a little fun and we provide an example of what NOT to do every other night.

  18. Ranelle says:

    This is such a work in progress at out house. The 12 year old is pretty good, but the 4 and 2 year old still need LOTS of work. This point was driven home at home group last night. They were underneath the kitchen table, eating crumbs off the floor. My son actually put his face down on the floor and ate like a dog! I just laughed and said, “Yes, this is because we don’t have plates at home. We just throw the food on the floor, kind’ve like you would for chickens.”

  19. Jules from The Roost says:

    This is a great post and SO needed. It amazes me the kids that run around the tables at restaurants. The parents just block them out. Your tips are very attainable and doable.. Working on them consistently is the key. Why shouldn’t we behave ourselves at dinner? ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. Lorraine says:

    Honestly, I’d never heard table manners explained that way. At my house it always taught as the proper way to eat, esp around our uncle, who was just a tad bit anal about table manners. We hardly ever saw him, but my folks never let up on the lessons.
    I love this though. now i finally have a “why” to give me kids other then “because that’s the way it’s done.”

  21. Trina says:

    Any behavior is a work in progress. As mentioned in some comments, thankfully the kids seem to demonstrate what they have learned better when they are out… and when it fails – pretend they are someone elses ;-}

  22. Nate's Mom says:

    At our house, privileges are earned by good behavior, and poor behavior results in a very boring and restricted life. Once the rules are clear, one at a time as you mentioned, then they are to be consistently obeyed.
    My MIL reportedly stuck her boys in the arm with her fork when they acted up at the table. In my book, that’s bad manners. I’m all about setting an example.
    Nate’s Mom

  23. Cathy | Mommy Motivation says:

    Very well written!
    I’m more concerned about MY behavior at public dinners than THEIRS. Consequences, have to date, been mommy’s screeching disapproval. Over and over. And over. I wonder what Aunt Fern would think of THAT? ๐Ÿ™‚ Very good advice. I will try to frame it differently, and to offer consequences… parent questions then arise – how come do I feel like I am constantly doling out consequences?

  24. Laura says:

    Great suggestions. My friend A’s mother got out the formal china and sat their family at the dining room for a meal once a week. That way, the girls learned that good manners aren’t just about special occasions, and they got used to being careful with the silverware and china.

  25. Stretch Mark Mama says:

    My Dad used to threaten to send us to the barn instead of doing our “bad manners” at the table. My older brother thought that was great fun, so he’d belch a big one just to be sent outside. He didn’t like going outside so much as he liked making me laugh. And I’d sit there and giggle and giggle, even though I was the “good” child. And I’d get in trouble for egging my brother on.
    He always sat across the table from me, and when mom and dad “weren’t looking” (i.e., “ignoring”), he’d lick his plate or squirt mashed potatoes out his mouth. Maybe cross his eyes at the same time if he thought it’d get a laugh.
    We also had a bathroom right beside the kitchen table (as we do now) which led to even more hilarity. As You Might Imagine.
    And now.
    And I go from being overly mortified to highly amused.

  26. Emily says:

    With four little girls, I remind them to eat “like a princess.” Manners show class (not the income order, but the dignity level) and a princess would NEVER chew with her mouth open, etc. Another part of manners which become important at dinner is taking turns when speaking. We all want to hear about everyone’s day and we all want everyone to listen when we are telling our story. Like you said, it is a chance to show kindness and courtesy.

  27. miriam says:

    The sentence about parenting to impress backfiring every time is echoing in the canyons of what’s left of my sleep deprived toddler-parenting brain.
    Amen, sister.



  29. TRS says:

    Judith Martin put it best… in an effort to explain that manners and etiquitte are not just outdated ‘rules’ – rather manners are how we show others that we have respect for them.
    love this: “parenting to impress” will backfire. EVERY time. Often spectacularly so.
    I’m picturing the oh-so-many-ways that could happen!

  30. Amy @ Cheeky Cocoa Beans says:

    Yes!! Great post! I, too, have explained to my kids many times how good manners are to show that we care for other people. I point out specific ways it’s “nice”–sometimes by doing the opposite of what should be done TO THEM, and asking them how it made them feel. I guess that’s a really small scale version of the “Bad Manners Nights” that one brave commenter occasionally has with her family. I’m just not that brave!!! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  31. Pam says:

    For my 4 year old boy, we’ve told him that one of his Thomas trains goes in “time out” for each bad manner that occurs at the table. (Since he’s just four, we do give him grace in the matter too. We know he’s learning.) This works well most of the time.

  32. Kelly says:

    This is such a frustrating subject for me. Table manners are very important for all the reasons you listed and my mother was VERY strict about them. I have tried to teach them to my children, and they do sort of ok, but their dad was raised (apparently in a barn) by parents who didn’t know or care about such niceties as chewing with your mouth closed, etc. PLUS, both my kids are athletes and played on college sports teams. They spent most of their meal times and all other times in a hurry, so the table manners have been pushed to the side. especially with the son – apparently boys table manners are worse in a pack than girls. They will tell me, however, that it grates on their nerves when someone at their table eats with their mouth hanging open, and that “absolutely no one else” cuts their salad up before proceding to cram an entire huge leaf of lettuce in their pie hole. So maybe some of it got through.

  33. Mrs. Pear says:

    Ummm, just wondering, but were you peaking in on our dinner table this weekend????
    we have also taken the perspective of good manners is a way of showing people you really like them. I have good table manners because I love my family kind of thing. Works better than lecturing, but still makes me want to just bang my head on the table!

  34. Ronda says:

    We stealthily work on manners all the time (I just never call it that or rebellion would ensue). There’s always a correction being made somewhere at sometime about something or other. With boys it’s just an on-going thing. Right now we’re working on chewing with your mouth closed.
    However, my worst pet peeve at the dinner table is when they slide that elbow onto the table so far that there’s now an armpit on the table!! It’s never just an elbow on the table. I have to remind them “No armpits on the table!”
    Boys really are a different species that must be studied. I came from an all girl family, so I learn new things all the time.

  35. Gretchen says:

    Thank you! We tried the “dinner on your own” consequence last night and it was the most pleasant dinner we’ve had in months!

  36. Musings of a Housewife says:

    All great advice. I have nothing really to add. But manners ARE important. Sometimes even I forget and do things that are rude when it’s just family. I need to clean up my act and require better behavior from my kids too.

  37. Marianne says:

    I agree with all of these, especially the fact that manners matter all the time, not just during the high-profile holiday season.
    I think many families eat on the go or don’t always eat together every night and those two situations work against you as parents big time if you’re trying to teach your kids how to eat dinner together. And do so nicely.
    One thing we do every night is say our Grace together first. It sets the tone that hey, we’re together and that’s something big to be thankful for each day.
    Good thoughts!

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