How to Instill Good Table Manners for Kids
If you’ve got any humans in the house under the age of 18, you’ve probably wondered what you did to deserve food all over the floor, gaping full mouths, and all kinds of other shenanigans at the table… rather than the perfectly behaved kids with impeccable table manners that someone, somewhere has figured out how to raise.
We always try to put the years of research we’ve done to good use, to help parents solve these pesky questions. And so, here is our short list of things that may, with a little effort, actually drive home good table manners for kids.
Teaching children good table manners
Show, don’t tell
You’re probably sick of hearing people say this, but children are learning every little thing from you, including their table manners. You can holler about sitting properly, eating with their mouth closed, and not checking devices during dinner, but if you don’t embody good table etiquette, you’ll be that hypocrite who expects their kids to do something they can’t even do themselves!
No, but really: Kids learn from watching you, not from what you say. Teaching kids manners is mostly about monkey see, monkey do.
You might be very clear on why dipping food into the water glass is not OK one day — but totally ignore that behaviour on the day when you’re exhausted and don’t feel like dealing with it. Unfortunately, your kid doesn’t know the difference; she just knows that food-dipping is OK sometimes! And so, she’ll test every day to see if that day happens to be ‘sometimes.’ In other words, parents frequently cave on table manner rules due to exceptions that are clear and understandable to adults, but not clear to kids.
The best way to get your point across on table etiquette is to consistently expect it and to detail scenarios that might be exceptions. This also makes it easier to enforce your preferences regarding table manners for kids. For example, “I want you to sit at the table until everyone else is finished eating, too. The only exception is if you need to go to the bathroom, or you’re sick.”
Need your kid to eat her veggies? Try this.
The only way to influence long-term behavioral change in your kid is to positively reinforce the behaviour you want to see more of — so, if you want good manners for your kids, fawn over them when you see them behaving well at the table.
Don’t bother nagging your kid every time he doesn’t do exactly what you want; this strategy may even work against you, as your kid realizes his miserable table manners are one more tool to get your attention. Instead, ignore the bad table manners and be sure to compliment every instance of good manners in children. You may even kick start a cycle of impeccable table manners, as your kid keeps doing it to get your positive attention.
As much as you may want a civilized dinner table full of kids who don’t scream or throw food on the floor, this is one of those things that can only happen in due time. Even though babies develop the fine motor skills to feed themselves by about twelve months, and should be able to eat with cutlery by eighteen months, it will be a messy affair for a while. There will be food on hair, clothes, chairs, and floors. But think of those early days as an investment: the sooner your kids learn to eat on their own, the closer you’ll be to a three-year old who is totally independent at the dinner table. And don’t forget the twos and threes are all about testing boundaries, so you may get some resistance from your toddler. But in due course, with some patience, a three to four year-old should be able to sit through dinner and feed herself without making your kitchen look like a warzone.
Don’t belabor the point
Pick your battles. In the long-game of parenting, table etiquette is one of those minor nice-to-haves. Remind yourself that it’s more important to have a pleasant family dinner, full of conversation and enjoyment, than it is to have a table full of perfectly poised automatons. So, while you work on praising the good table manners in your children, setting a good example, and sticking to your guns, you can also do it within reason. Because table manners only count if everyone actually wants to sit at the table together.