Yes, it’s that time of year when we gather around the table and enjoy holiday dinner with our extended family. Joy right? Ahh, not so much, especially if you are stressed about your uncouth seven year-old son’s behaviour. Will he break bread or break wind, or worse, toss bread? Or pout about hating his gravy touching his peas. Shouting “Where are your manners?” is just as much a part of the festive meal as the cranberry sauce.
We forget our children have substandard table manners until they’re under scrutiny of company and extended family. Suddenly we think that a stern look or a quiet reminder is somehow going to snap them into shape like yet another Christmas miracle.
We have to invest some time BEFORE the holidays to prepare our kids for the ways we expect them to behave when we have company. Here is my quickie table manners course:
Alyson’s Table Manners Bootcamp
Don’t teach table manners during the special occasions. Instead, have some ‘fancy’ family dinners together in the dinner room with china, crystal, and gravy boats on a Sunday night. Get dressed up. Make it over-the-top fun, like you’re actors in a play. “Pardon me Jeeves, but would you care for some more water with lime in your goblet?”
Teach instead of correct. Discuss manners in a relaxed ‘did you know’ way. Usually we just correct children for their mistakes which they hear as criticism. “Your bread plate is the one on the left” is nicer than “Hey, that’s not your plate, use the other one”.
Explain that there are different levels of manners. These are based on the formality of the occasion. It may be okay to skip the napkin when you are eating grilled cheese for lunch, but Christmas dinner means you need to put the cloth napkin on your lap. Discuss this BEFORE company arrives. If you don’t, your children will think you are inconsistent and are just making up different rules all the time.
Create a list of misbehaviours (privately) that you specifically want to parent around and tackle them NOW. Three common ones and their solutions are:
Interrupting while others are speaking. Try passing around the salt shaker, and whoever has it has the floor and can speak while others listen. You may also need to bring a timer from a board game to the table to make sure no-one fillabusts longer than three minutes.
Getting up and down from the table. Try applying a logical consequence: “If you get up from the table, that tells me you are done the meal”. If your child opts to leave the table, so be it. Quietly and calmly remove their plate, and don’t offer alternative food until the next meal time. They’ll soon learn to stay at the table and eat enough to fill their tummy.
Disturbing by bubbling milk and other hijinks. Most dinner disturbances serve to keep the limelight on the child. Instead of responding to misbehaviors with nagging and reminding, ignore poor manners and use distraction to engage the child in a more positive conversation. Ask them about their favorite superhero, or what they want to be when they grow up.
If your children don’t use their manners, you can excuse them from the table and invite them to come back when they do want to use their manners. Or you can excuse yourself and choose to eat in the kitchen where you don’t have to watch poor table manners.
Try some of these in the weeks to come BEFORE the big holiday feast with family. And when in doubt, you can always have the kids and cousins eat at a card table in the basement!
Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and best-selling author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, Breaking The Good Mom Myth and Ain't Misbehavin'. She is host of TV's "The Parenting Show" and an international speaker. Visit www.alysonschafer.com for more parenting tips.