Teaching table manners to young children

The good manners we learn in our childhood stay with us our whole lives and can have an effect on our future relationships at home, work and in public life.

Photo: Loren Kerns, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: Loren Kerns, Flickr Creative Commons

With the approach of the winter holidays, some of us start to feel a little nervous about holiday meals with the extended family. While we enjoy visiting with relatives and friends over a table full of our favorite holiday foods, we may worry over the behavior of our children. Will they be polite? Will they use their best manners? Do they even know proper mealtime etiquette?

Etiquette is a French word, originally meaning the list of rules for individual conduct at the royal court. Today, it just means a set of appropriate behaviors intended to help others feel comfortable and respected. Etiquette guru Emily Post once said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

While these rules have changed a great deal over time, some of the basic guidelines remain the same.

We aren’t born knowing these rules, of course. Usually, it is our parents and other family members who teach children how to act respectfully in various situations. The good manners we learn in our childhood stay with us our whole lives and can have an effect on our future relationships at home, work and in public life.

Rules of mealtime etiquette can be complex, especially if one has to cope with a meal of many courses and a plethora of tableware. However, most parents just want their children to remember a few basic rules and avoid grossing out the family at the feast.

Michigan State University Extension offers these tips to remember when we begin teaching good manners.

  • First, if we want our children to use good manners at special events, then we must make them part of our daily routine. It is easier for children to learn something if it is practiced regularly. You may want to start now to be ready for a holiday meal.
  • When teaching new skills, consistency is important. That means that when the opportunity presents itself to practice the new skill, adults usually need to cue the child as to what to say or do. When we see our children chewing with a wide-open mouth, that is the time to remind them to chew with a closed mouth. It is also a good time to answer the why question, such as “Why do we need to close our mouth?”
  • When teaching any skill, it is also important to model the behavior for the child. While we are explaining that we should close our mouths when chewing, we must do so after we have swallowed our food ourselves.

For very young children, it is a good idea to start simple. Most parents expect their children to use greetings such as “hello” and “goodbye.” In fact, most of us are thrilled when our babies start waving goodbye because it is one of the first ways in which infants engage with other adults in a social setting. Even before they can talk, some children also learn to say “please” and “thank you” by using the American Sign Language signs for these words. To sign “please,” you rub your right hand in a circular motion over your chest or heart. To say “thank you,” you hold your right hand upright (with the palm toward your body) to your lips and tip your hand forward.

Preschoolers can learn table etiquette such as chewing with their mouth closed and using utensils such as a spoon and fork. Sometimes it is easier for a child to use a utensil with a thicker handle because it’s easier for a child to grasp. Young children generally grasp the handle in their fists and bring the spoon or fork up to the mouth parallel to the body rather than perpendicular to the body. This may seem clumsy-looking, but a child will soon learn to turn the utensil as it gets to their mouth and then to hold the handle like an adult. It takes practice! In the meantime, expect that there will be spills and sometimes they will want to revert to eating with their fingers. It’s best to be gentle but firm in our approach and clean up quietly but efficiently.

Kindergartners have mastered the previous skills and are ready to wait for a turn to talk and ask for foods by saying “please pass the …” instead of “I want…” Avoiding interrupting others when they are speaking takes some rather sophisticated listening skills, so we need to coach our children to pay attention to the break in the conversation and try to make eye-contact with one of the people when they want to have a turn. Having time to practice these skills at family meals will give children time to get used to a new routine before the big meal when it’s “show time.”

Some of our more precocious youngsters will ask “why.” What’s the point of using these special words and actions to communicate simple needs? We can explain that it is respectful to be polite and to treat others with courtesy. It’s really about helping our children to learn social skills, just like we help them learn physical skills, literacy skills and cognitive skills. Getting along with others will be an important skill for our children throughout their lives. Starting with the basics when they are young and increasing the challenges as they grow older is a natural way to teach the rules of our society.

For more references on teaching manners, visit the following resources and websites:

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