The words “kids” and “table manners” are hardly synonymous. Whether you have a tot who delights in making a mess; a preschooler who spends more time running around than eating; or a school-ager who gobbles and runs back to his video games, there are plenty of ways to get your kids to mind their p’s and q’s at meals. Here’s how:
“Toddlers need constant reminding to behave,” says parenting coach Lisa Bunnage. “It’s all a game to little ones, so it’s up to parents to set the mealtime rules right from the start.” This means telling (or showing) kids what you expect from them, and what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the rules. If you have kids who are deep in the “terrible twos” phase, you’ll be repeating these rules more often than you’d like.
Flinging food is common, and if you’re tired of picking spaghetti off your walls, circumvent the problem. “If your child throws food on the floor, put one piece of chicken, for example, on her highchair tray. When she eats it, give her another,” says parenting expert Julie Freedman Smith. “At the very worst, you’ll be picking up one bit of chicken rather than an entire plate.” You can also try ignoring the bad behaviour. “Kids do what works, and if dropping food gets attention, they’ll keep doing it,” says Bunnage. “If eating and talking politely gets attention...well...you get the idea.”
This group is full of picky eaters, super-slow eaters and attention-seekers. Freedman Smith says the key to instilling good table etiquette is practise. “Sit down with the kids at a time other than dinner and explain what you expect. Write it down or draw pictures,” she says. “When they come to the table, ask them to remind you of the rules. When they use proper manners, thank them. And when they slip up, cue them with, ‘I think you meant to say please pass the ketchup.’”
When you’re on your way to dinner at Grandma’s, or New Year’s Day brunch with friends, have them recite the rules. “In our family, restaurant expectations are always quiet voices and hands to your- selves,” Freedman Smith says.
“Poor conversation skills at the table are common in this age group,” says Freedman Smith. Parents can explain what’s suitable talk, as well as the art of mealtime repartee. “Practising the art of conversation and active listening at home will avoid years of one-word answers and glum faces,” says etiquette expert Louise Fox. Don’t ask questions that can easily end in “yes,” “no,” or “fine.” Instead, start off with a specific topic like: “Tell us what you learned today in music class.”
While kids this age should be well versed in table manners, they’re the ones who bring their iPads to the table, grunt in response to questions, and eat as fast as possible to get back to whatever’s on TV.
To ensure good manners, get your older kids to start acting like grown-ups at the table by having them place their napkins on their laps, encouraging them to use their cutlery properly, and by teaching them not to dig in before everyone has been served.
The other thing kids this age have in common is complaining about the meal they’re served. “I suggest parents say, ‘OK, start cooking for yourself. But the rules are that your meal has to be healthy and you have to leave the kitchen spotless,’” says Bunnage. “Either they’ll try it once and decide mom’s food tastes great, or they end up loving to cook and clean and become the family chef.”
Finally, if you’re worried your kids are picking up bad mealtime habits from other kids, don’t underestimate your influence. “Peers have influence, but parents have power,” says Bunnage. “If you send polite, well-mannered children out into the world, the odds are they’re going to stay that way.”
This article was originally published in December 2013.