When I was a child, my mother often threatened to send me to Miss Manners’ school because of my less than stellar table etiquette. I was fairly decent at keeping a napkin on my lap, but my elbows were always on the table, I used the side of my fork to cut my food instead of my knife, and (gulp) I used my hands to push my food on to my fork. I eventually learned how to eat more properly and can now fake my way through the most pretentious of meals, but I never really adopted these finer habits when eating in my own home. When it was just my husband and me, it didn’t really matter; but now that we have children, I struggle with teaching them the better habits I never cultivated as a child.

Teaching table manners to children can be a little tricky. We need to have reasonable expectations of children and meet them where they are in their cognitive and motor development. For example, infants first learning to eat solid foods will get messy (and getting messy can even be a good thing [insert link to “messy is good” entry]”, and toddlers will throw food, either as a form of exploration or as a developmentally appropriate act of defiance. (Yes, defiant and oppositional behavior is a normal part of development, much to our parental chagrin.) So when and how can we start?

When to Start 

When you start teaching table manners is dependent on your specific child. If your child is using tableware at least semi-independently, shows awareness at the table beyond what is directly in front of them, shows interest in your food and tableware and has a basic comprehension of meal related vocabulary (for example, spoon, plate, bowl, napkin, etc.), he or she is ready to start participating.

How to Start 

Pick one behavior at a time to focus on. It will be overwhelming if you try to give a lot of directions in one sitting, and your expectations will be confusing to your child. Keep it very simple and be consistent! You are basically training your child and laxness on your part will slow or halt the process. Here are some basic behaviors to start with:

  • Handing you the plate/bowl: When your child has finished eating, ask her to give you the plate or bowl. You may have to explain what the direction means, either in words (“Pick up the plate in your hands. Now put the plate in my hands.”) or by putting her hands through the motions. As you teach her this skill, you will probably have to direct her to use two hands, keep the plate level so the crumbs don’t fall off, etc. Handing you the plate helps her to understand that a plate is a tool, that a plate is not something to be thrown and that there are responsibilities once the eating is done. This action gets her participating in the conversation of mealtime.
  • Waiting to be excused from the table: Having your child hand you his plate is a precursor to sitting at the table until he is excused. The handing of the plate is a ritual that lets your child know the meal is over. The next step is to keep him seated while you wipe his hands and face. When you do this, you can say, “We always wipe our hands and face before we leave the table.” Keep doing it and keep saying it. By the time he’s old enough to sit in a seat without a strap, he should be well trained to sit and wait for you to wipe his hands and face before he leaves the table. Then, when he has more speech, after you wipe his hands and face and before you leave his side say, “Say ‘may I be excused?’” Take whatever approximation he gives you and respond, “Yes you may!” and give him space to get out of his seat. As he becomes more independent with wiping his face and hands, he may need only reminders to ask to be excused.

This sequence only works if you 1) model staying seated at the table while others are eating and 2) have realistic expectations for how long YOUR child can stay seated at a table. Especially at very young ages, children don’t sit for too long – certainly not as long as many adults like to linger at the dinner table. Take your child’s cues as best you can: fidgeting/squirming, pushing away from the table, crying or whining, refusing to continue eating and playing with food are all indicators that sitting is getting uncomfortable. Even if you can’t excuse him at that moment, recognizing his signs and giving him a goal to work towards (“I’m almost done and then we can get up”) can help assuage his need to get up and go.

  • Saying “please” and “thank you:” Though this behavior may not first come to mind when thinking of table manners, it is expected at the table. Eating as a group has its own social contract and politeness is at the forefront. If your child asks for more food or points and grunts, confirm what the child wants (“You would like more chicken?”) and then ask for a “please.” For very young children who are just becoming verbal, “please” can be a fairly easy word to approximate. Give the child what she asked for when you hear any approximation along with praise (“That was a great please!”) At some point, you can stop prompting with “say please,” and start prompting with “I would like more chicken ______?”

Once the child receives what she asked for, tell her to “say ‘thank you.’” Again, very young children can generally approximate the sounds, even if the words aren’t well articulated. After a certain amount of repetition, you should be able to change your prompt to “What do you say?” or whatever “thank you” prompt you like to use.

  • Not banging silverware on the table: I’ve never met a child who hasn’t made noise on the table, plate or cup with his silverware. So, first, take a deep breath and realize that all children do this. To stop the behavior, take the silverware away. I like to give the child a chance before I remove the object, so I may say, “Please stop banging with your fork. It is too loud.” Perhaps, he will pause in his banging, and then start again. So I will put my hand over the utensil and say, “If you bang again, I will take the fork away.” If he bangs again, I take the fork for a moment, repeat my “stop banging because it is loud” speech, ask if he wants the fork back (he usually does), and then hand the fork back. Repeat the process.

The single most important thing about teaching table manners 

You. You are the single most important thing about teaching table manners. Your children look to you, they emulate you, they imitate you. If you want your child to act a certain way, you have to model that behavior. Believe me, I find that notion upsetting, considering my own laxness. When I see my children do something I don’t approve of, I have to hold up my mirror first.

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