In these days of convenience foods, take aways, busy working parents, extra-curricular activities and so on, it may be difficult to take the time to sit down at a table together as a family and to teach your children good table manners. The influence of TV programmes, particularly from America, has watered-down our manners in some ways. For example, using a fork in your right hand to eat a meal (an American habit), eating food with your hands rather than using cutlery, taking mobile calls while at the table – the list is endless!
Many of us see table manners as old fashioned and something our parents were ‘hung up’ on but nonetheless, I am sure that many of us are grateful for the table manners that we learnt as children when we are faced with dining situations where being comfortable that you know how to have good table manners is important. Teaching our children good table manners will benefit them in many situations throughout their lives – for example, formal dining on social occasions, business lunches or dinners, dining in restaurants with friends and hopefully, teaching their own children good table manners! Knowing what to do with your napkin, cutlery, glassware and so on will come as second nature if you have been taught and practiced good table manners from childhood.
So what can we do to ensure that our children learn good table manners? Well first of all, we need to ensure that we as parents have good manners and practice these at the table. The old ‘do as I say not as I do’ principle applies very much to table manners. A good starting point would be for both parents to discuss what they deem as good table manners and what they feel should be practiced in their home. The manners that you teach and expect your child to demonstrate must be consistent between both parents. We list some basic manners later in this article and you can use this as a guide to setting your own family rules.
It is also important to recognise that good table manners must be practised as well as being taught. By practising good table manners with your children, good manners will become second-nature to them rather than having to concentrate on having good manners. Gently correcting bad manners by saying what your child should do instead will teach them the correct way and also allow them to practice the correct way.
To help to teach children good table manners, it is vital, even in our busy schedules, to try to set a table and sit down to a meal together as often as possible. Depending on your family, this could be several times a week or just one or two times per week, but try to ensure that you do this as often as you can. Begin by getting the children to help with setting the table, show them where to place plates, glasses, knives, forks and so on. This will help them to understand appreciate how a table should be laid out. Use your common sense and adapt to whatever is age appropriate for your child. If you are getting younger children involved in setting the table, consider using melamine tableware which is less breakable.
When you start to teach good table manners, begin with the basics – sitting at the table, using a knife and fork, not talking with mouth full etc. Build on their skills and introduce new ideas as time goes on. On an everyday basis, most families will not use fancy silverware, napkins, or multiple glasses – too much washing up! That is fine – good table manners can still be used even in the most casual of situations. It is a good idea however, to have occasional ‘fancy’ meals at home to teach the children more advanced table manners. Typical occasions could be Christmas dinner, birthday dinners, visitors for dinner or simply just fancy dinners for the fun of it!
So what basic manners should you teach to your children? The following are some ideas to consider:
Sit properly at the table
It may seem obvious, but teaching your child how to sit properly at a table is very important. Slouching, sitting sideways, fidgeting and so on should be discouraged. Explain to your child that it is important to sit up properly to avoid accidents and also to aid digestion by being relaxed and seated properly. The other golden rule of manners sitting at the table is the ‘no elbows on the table’ rule. Insist on this – it is vital to the comfort of others at the table. Tell them that the only acceptable time to place elbows on the table is when the meal is over and everyone has finished eating.
When To Start The Meal
Different families have different rules on this one. As a basic rule, nobody should begin to eat until everyone is seated at the table and has been served. Some parents insist that nobody should eat until the host or hostess has started to eat but this is up to you and what your family wants. Whichever you decide on, teach your child to sit properly and wait politely until it is time to start eating.
Use cutlery and utensils
Teach your child how to use various items of cutlery and utensils. Show them how to hold the knife and fork, how to place these together in the centre of the plate when they are finished their course, where the desert spoon and fork are and so forth. Tell them specific ‘no nos’ – for example, don’t lick your knife, don’t wave your cutlery around in the air, don’t eat with their fingers and so on.
Open Mouth Rule
A very basic but extremely important rule is to teach children not to speak with their mouth full. Explain to them about cutting food into mouth sized portions and not to overstuff their mouths. Teach them to chew their food properly with their mouth closed. Insist on this basic rule at all times.
Stretching across the table
Teach your children that they should politely ask someone to pass items that they need rather than stretching across the table. Similarly, teach them that if someone asks them to pass something to them, then how they should do this correctly. For example, if asked to pass the salt, then this should be done by placing the salt beside the place of the person who made the request. If they are asked to pass some bread, then do not grab a piece of bread and pass it to the person, rather, pick up the bread plate/basket and offer it to the requestor. If your child is stretching across the table, remind them gently to sit back and ask the appropriate person to pass the item required. Be respectful – tell them gently but firmly what to do and then get them to do it.
Slurping, burping and other no-nos!
Nobody likes to hear bodily noises such as these while eating their meal. Teach your child not to slurp their soup or drinks. If they feel the need to burp, either do so very quietly behind their napkin or if the burp is likely to be audible, to excuse themselves from the table and return when the burp has been expelled! Teach them that they need to say ‘excuse me for a minute’ rather than announcing what is happening ‘I have to get out of here to let a big huge burp!’. The same applies if they need to use the bathroom. Don’t announce to everyone what they need to do – just excuse themselves.
Some families use napkins at every meal, but many families, only use them on special occasions. Whatever your situation, it is important to teach your child how to use their napkin so that they know what to do in situations where napkins are being used. The first rule should be to unfold the napkin and place it on their lap. For younger children, you may allow them to put the napkin in the neckline – this is perfectly acceptable. They can progress to putting the napkin on their lap as they grow older. The napkin should never be waved around at the table. When the meal is finished, it should be loosely folded and placed beside your plate.
Don’t be rude about what is being served
What a disaster when a child at the table exclaims ‘yuck – that looks disgusting!!’ just as the dish is placed on the table. Teach them to be polite, if they do not want some of the dish that they are being offered, then to say ‘no thank you’ and not to comment on why they feel that way.
Remember, just as any of us should thank the host or cook for the meal, our children should do this too. A simple, ‘thank you – that was lovely’ goes such a long way towards making the person who provided the meal appreciated!
Teach them not to double-dip. If a dip is provided, they should use a spoon to place some of the dip on their own plate and use that rather than dipping their food in directly after taking a bite!
Teach them how to butter their bread when they are at a formal meal. That is, take the piece of butter and place it on their bread plate. Use the butter from their bread plate to butter their bread.
Teach them how to have polite conversation – don’t interrupt people when they are speaking, try to pay attention to the conversation so that they can join in (again, use your common sense as to what is appropriate for the child’s age) and so on.
No mobiles at the table! We all know how annoying it is to be having a meal with someone who is constantly texting or taking calls. How rude! Teach your child not to do this, make a rule in your house and most importantly, follow your own rule and place your mobile on silent and leave it away from the table.
In all cases of introducing and teaching table manners, use your own common sense and make sure that you make necessary allowances for your child’s age and what they are able to do.
Children will often question why certain manners are necessary. When you can, use your imagination to explain the reason why. For example, placing your napkin on your lap could be explained to little girls as something that princesses always do so that they don’t drop food on their beautiful dress. Get them to practice so that if they go to a fancy ball with a beautiful dress, they will already be used to having their napkin there. In the same way, when teaching them not to wave their cutlery in the air, you could tell a story of the little boy/girl who stuck their fork in their granny by accident because they were waving this about. There are loads of ways to reinforce the reasons for good manners – this can help your child to understand the reason for the rule and harness their imaginations to remember the rule.
Remember, teaching and practicing good table manners with your child is a valuable life skill that will be of benefit to them for the rest of their lives.