“What are the main table manners children should know?” A common question I am frequently asked. Yet I have a tough time narrowing my answer. I pick my top three, then a fourth pops into my mind. Then a fifth. We may not all attend black-tie events, but we do all eat. Your children will one day be placed in a situation where they need to skillfully know their way around a dining table. Whether it be a date or a job interview, a person’s table manners leaves an impression. Teaching children how to handle those forks, know which way to pass food, and how to carry on a conversation with others will build their confidence. Teach them the “how,” but also teach them the “why.” I live by the age-old quote, “Rules without reason equals rebellion.” I believe explaining the “why” behind what we do eliminates a rebellious attitude. It also helps them commit your lessons to memory. Although this list could be three times as long, here are my top 13 etiquette rules I would make sure every child knew.
1. Place Setting: Be familiar with a basic place setting. The best way to teach a child is set the table at home when you have family meals. Even better, put the children in charge of setting the table. Why? This will commit proper placement to memory.
2. Napkin: As soon as they sit at the table, they place the napkin in their lap. Why? If something spills it will stain their napkin and not their clothes. That napkin is also used to dab (not wipe) the mouth.
3. When to Start Eating: Begin eating when the host or hostess begins to eat. At home, this would be Mom or Dad. Why? It is polite to wait for everyone at the table to be served. Eating a meal together is not only about filling our stomachs, but it is a time to check in with each other and strengthen relationships. As with any good team, there is a captain, and a team takes their marching orders from their leader. At the family table, the captain is Mom or Dad.
4. Passing Food: Food is passed to the right. Why? Most people are right-handed. If one person is holding a bowl for the other person to serve themselves, it is easier if they can serve themselves with their right hand.
5. No Cell Phones: I believe the easiest way to control this is leave the phone in another room during mealtime. If this is not possible, the phone should be on silent and left in the pocket. I do not like this, though, because every time a text comes in the vibration will be felt. You will have a constant battle on your hands. Best practice? Do not bring the phone to the table. Why? Dinner time is family time. It is difficult to have everyone’s undivided attention when outside distractions occur. I did not invite the person on the other end of the phone to join us for dinner, and I do not want them interrupting my family time. Teach children to be present with the people they are with.
6. Do Not Talk with Food in Your Mouth: Why? Because it is gross! Teach a child to take small bites so they can chew, and swallow quickly, and still be part of the conversation.
7. Rest Utensils: After each bite, set the utensils in their resting position. Swallow your food before picking the utensils back up. Why? This promotes slower eating and teaches the child to savor their food. It also prevents them from swinging a fork around in the air should they be the type of person that talks with their hands.
8. Tear the Bread: Tear a bite-sized piece with your hand and place in your mouth. If butter is desired, show them how to tear a small piece, butter only the part they have torn, and then proceed to eat. Why? Placing half a roll in the mouth invites unwanted attention. It can also cause problems. If the bread is chewy you will get it all over your front teeth. If the bread is hard you may end up in a tug-of-war with the roll. Too many embarrassing things can happen when you bite into bread. Avoid this and teach your children to tear and butter.
9. Utensils Do Not Touch the Table: After a utensil is picked up, it never touches the table again. Teach children to place utensils in resting position between bites. Why? After a utensil has been used, letting it touch the table will leave food on the table, stain a tablecloth, and pick up dirty germs.
10. I Am Finished: Teach children to put their utensils in the finished position when they have completed their meal.
11. Restaurant Behavior: Many families eat out more than they eat in. Teaching basic restaurant protocol is important. The same rules that apply at home apply in public. I would add that teaching a child to order their food from a waiter, learning how to interact with wait staff, and when they are older knowing how to pay a bill and tally the gratuity are all important. And remind them to treat those that serve them with kindness.
12. Respectful Words: Say please and thank you. “Please pass the bread.” Followed by, “Thank you.” Why? It shows respect. Never underestimate the power of grateful words.
13. Do Not Interrupt: Teach children to be part of the table conversation. Why? In doing so, you will help them become active listeners. This also means teaching them to wait their turn and not interrupt.
In sports we say, “Practice like you play.” Etiquette and manners begin at home, and visual memory and repetition are the best teachers. Children will do as their parents do, and the way to teach good manners is to show good manners. When my husband and I began teaching our son dining skills, we made it fun by creating a game we called the Quarter Game. We each brought change to the table, and anytime we saw our son take a misstep in his manners (forgetting to put his napkin in his lap, talking with food in his mouth), we tagged him, and he gave us a quarter. What made the game fun for our son was it worked both ways. If he caught his dad or me in a faux pas, he would say, “Dad, you forgot to say thank you after I passed the food. You owe me a quarter!” We turned learning table manners into a game, and it was a win/win for all.
When at home, if parents do not model the behavior they want their children to have, they cannot expect the children to model good behavior in public. Moms and Dads, table manners begin with you. Make it fun and know by teaching your children to master these skills, you are giving the gift of confidence that will carry them through many situations once they are no longer under your wings.
Together with you,