Never too early to teach manners

Picture the scene: your whole family is home from work or school. You are all sitting around the kitchen table in the early evening, quietly sharing stories of the day while enjoying mac and cheese.

“Over … ”

“Over … ”

“OVER!”

Only a parent who has undergone the long process of teaching a youngster to eat over his or her plate will recognize the frustration expressed in that final exclamatory remark.

Teaching table manners is a tough slog. And when everything is happy at the table, you don’t really want to spoil the mood by nagging your child about eating messily. I certainly don’t. Some kids catch on quickly. They avoid putting their glass of milk at the table edge. They don’t jump on and off their chair. They eat what’s on their plates. They make life easy for their folks.

But I’d predict that most children need instruction ad nauseam before they really get their table manners tool kit together.

Starting young helps. You can’t expect much from toddlers, but by four or five they can learn not to flick peas at a sibling and to ask to be excused before running away from the table.

With our eldest girl, the challenge was to get her to eat over her plate, to catch any indiscriminate crumbs. Somehow her whole place setting was always a big mess, so we had to do something to get the problem in hand.

With other children, it’s getting them not to talk with a mouth full of food. Or not to smack. Good grief, there are adults I know who do both, and it’s not a pretty sight. If you want to ensure that your children can dine with the boss or take tea with the Queen without embarrassing themselves, then arm them with knowledge of acceptable table manners.

Practice makes perfect. If you teach children how to hold a knife and fork the right way (fork in left, knife in right, index fingers on top), then they can get into the habit so it’s a no-brainer. When they grow up and go to a formal, a wedding, or even a fancy date, they’ll know exactly how to be presentable in a formal dining setting. Believe me, you don’t want your grown-up child to skewer a steak with a fork, then cut the steak all into little bits before taking a bite. Or ferociously stirring the curry on rice till not a grain is white. Or licking the serving spoon. Or gnawing a chicken bone. Or picking at the cake icing. Ahhhh!

Some things you can maybe let go. When I grew up, a child of parents who grew up in the Depression, it was mandatory to eat everything put on my plate. I don’t demand that of my kids because I don’t want them to eat more if they’re full. But we have another rule because I have outspoken children: never verbalize disgust at what somebody else is eating. Yes, it was a problem for a while.

Teaching your child table manners should be a thankless task. Children should pick up on your hints quickly and follow your example so that neither of you even thinks about it. In the real world, life is rarely so easy. But take heart – children do learn, and they can become fine, upstanding citizens with good table manners. Not something they’ll put on their resumes, but definitely a valuable skill set to acquire.

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