Teaching your children table manners may sound old fashioned, but it never goes out of style. Having good manners shows your respect for other people, and it’s more than saying “please” and “thank you.” It’s about helping your children develop habits and behaviors that will help them relate to adults and other children in a positive way.
“To make your family mealtime special and relaxing, slow down, sit and talk with your children and expect good behavior. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much easier and enjoyable it will become,” said Dr. Mary Zurn, vice president of education for Primrose Schools. “This is important because children with good manners often find it easier to make friends and get along with others at school and at home.”
Dr. Zurn offers five table manners tips to get parents started:
1. Start early: Don’t wait until you think your child is “old enough” to learn polite behavior. Just as children learn to crawl before they learn to walk, they also learn manners in stages. Even infants watch parents for rules of expected behavior. Very young children can learn to sign key phrases such as “please” or “thank you” and then transition to the spoken words around age two. By age three, children should be able to stay seated at mealtime if you sit down with them. They love showing off new skills at this age, so it is a perfect time for them to show you how they use forks and spoons correctly. Imitating adults is another favorite activity, and they will want to try cutting. This is best practiced using plastic knives and soft foods like bananas. They can also help set the table and make sure everyone has a place to sit.
2. Give specific feedback: Children learn best when they receive specific feedback about their behavior which is far more effective than generic praise. For example, instead of saying, “Good job,” you can say, “I’m so glad you set the table. I was hungry and you helped us all to eat sooner.”
3. Encourage polite conversation: Children as young as two can learn to engage in polite conversation at the dinner table with the right kind of guidance. As you are at the table eating together, show them how to take turns listening, talking, and asking questions. Mealtime will be a special time if you set the expectation that it is a time for everyone nourish their bodies and enjoy each other’s company.
4. Set a good example: Make sure your words and actions match. Children watch parents all the time for behavior clues. For example, if you want your child to eat broccoli because it’s a healthy food choice, you will need to let them see you enjoy eating it as well.
5. Create a routine: Children learn best from consistency because it helps them know what to expect. They thrive and learn best when they know their world is an orderly place. Start with the repetition of a few simple steps such as putting a napkin in your lap when you sit down and waiting until everyone is served before starting to eat. Create a routine that is easy for them to repeat and remember. While they might need gentle reminders, it is something your child can do at home and away that others will respond to positively.