Lately, while dining with our two older sons, my husband and I often look at each other in shock over the state of their terrible table manners. Food is shovelled into mouths that remain open for conversation, napkins are frequently left folded on the table beside the dinner plates and we frequently enter into negotiations over which menu items will and won’t be eaten. In case you’ve forgotten, it pains me to admit that we aren’t sharing a table with two toddlers, but rather a pair of teenagers who seem to have forgotten EVERY SINGLE MANNER taught to them over the years.
It’s not surprising, really. All you have to do is Google ‘why does my teen act like a toddler?’ and you’ll find numerous studies supporting the fact that these adolescent years often mimic behaviours thought to have been left behind with the terrible twos (trust me, I’ve done it). It’s disheartening at times, but also just part of the growing up process, so we take the opportunity to reteach many of the things we felt certain were permanently embedded in their brains.
My children have been eating at the table with us from the time they were able to sit up, and family dinner is a regular ritual in our house. Beginning around age two, we’ve shown the kids how we would like them to eat, and while I didn’t think we’d need a refresher course for the teenage years, it turns out we actually need to continuously model the manners we want them to use, even when they stand taller than us. Here are my guidelines for good table manners. They may look a little different than yours, and if they do, I’d love to hear which rules you put into place at your own table.
1. Saying please and thank you
This can be taught from the time kids can speak and is a basic no-brainer, as these words will be used everywhere from the playground to preschool, in addition to the dinner table. You will have to practice and give many reminders about the ‘magic word’ but it will payoff in dividends when you hear your kids ask someone to please pass them the milk without any prompting.
2. Using a napkin (cloth, please)
I’m a cloth napkin hoarder and probably could use an intervention to halt my many purchases, but I feel justified in having so many because we use them for every single meal of the day. Around age two we teach the kids how to put the napkin in the their lap, or tuck it into their shirt collar (my 13-year-old’s preferred method) if the food is particularly messy, and ask them to wipe their hands on it instead of their clothes (something we still work on today).
3. No talking while chewing
This is a challenging one to teach, especially when you have a table full of people competing to tell their stories of the day. In fact, some adults still struggle with the concept, so we just keep reminding them every time someone speaks mid chewing. Some people use a secret signal to let their children know they are talking with their mouths full, a concept I’ll likely try with my baby when he joins us at the table.
4. The one-bite rule
My kids, like many, were picky preschoolers and would often come to the table saying that something looked gross. We quickly nipped that in the bud with the one-bite rule. They must try a least one taste of everything on the menu, even if they feel confident they won’t like it. When we go to someone else’s house we call it a ‘thank you portion’ and they have to sample a small amount of everything to thank the cook for making them a meal (those negotiations I mentioned really come into play when putting this rule into practice).
5. Using utensils
Between the ages of one and two children can begin to hold a fork and spoon. While some will still eat with their fingers, naturally, it’s a great time to show kids how to hold their utensils properly and instil the importance of using them. I do still occasionally have to remind my big kids to keep their fingers out of their food, but it’s happening less and less these days, thankfully.
6. Thank the cook
My husband is so great at this and every night he’ll say something along the lines of, ‘Thanks honey, that was great!’ Happily, this is one area my kids don’t need work on as they almost always thank the cook and have been doing so since they were small.
7. No electronics
Last, but certainly not least, is the no electronics rule. This applies to kids and adults and is non-negotiable, even in restaurants. Having said that, if we are out eating and we linger for a long time at the table after the meal has been eaten (chatting with friends, etc.) the kids can pull out their phones, if they like.