Oliver is only three, but he already knows some table manner basics. He uses a fork and spoon to eat, and says please and thank you when he asks for things. And while Jessica Fleury, his mom, says, “I don’t think preschoolers need to sit at the table for an hour while adults chat,” Oliver is expected to stay in his seat until he’s done eating. (That’s not as easy as it sounds: Fleury says, “We live on a flight path, and he loves to jump up to watch a plane go by.”) After his meal, Oliver says, “I’m done, thank you,” and carries his plate to the sink.
His parents do their part to help Oliver succeed. “He’s a very picky eater, but we do try to serve at least one food he likes with each meal so he eats with the rest of us,” says Fleury. “We try to set a good example, and to maintain a conversation that he can be involved in.”
Mackenzie, also three, is well on her way to having good table manners too. She uses a napkin to wipe her mouth, although she has a little trouble keeping it on her lap. She’s learning to chew with her mouth closed and swallow her food before speaking. Though it’s sometimes hard to wait, she knows she shouldn’t just interrupt and will ask, “May I say something?” or “Is it my turn yet?” And, says her mother, Elaine Wong, “She tells everyone that no elbows are allowed on the table!”
Suzanne Nourse, an etiquette consultant at the Protocol School of Ottawa, would definitely approve. While she doesn’t expect a preschooler to sit through a multi-course meal, she says that most should be able to manage a visit to a fairly nice restaurant. “Though you might not be dawdling over dessert,” she admits, also advising that parents pack along small toys like crayons to help keep kids entertained.
The key, she says, is for simple manners to be practised consistently at home. “If there’s a huge discrepancy between your home manners and what I call your princess manners, then you can get into trouble. Children don’t know how to turn it off and on.”
She stresses that the teaching process should be positive: We want a happy atmosphere at family meals. “A lot of it is modelling. Children learn by what they see. And they can pick up things indirectly. You can say to yourself: ‘Oh, I forgot to use my napkin!’ They are like little sponges.”
When you do need to correct your child, says Nourse, keep it neutral and low key. “It’s as simple as ‘We don’t blow bubbles in our milk’ or ‘We’re at the table. Nobody wants to see that.’” Sometimes, she says, you don’t need to say anything at all: “It can be a look across the table. Mom or Dad just touches their mouth and the child knows to use her napkin.”
It’s important to remember that preschoolers don’t have the coordination or the attention span to have perfect table manners. Like all skills, these will come gradually as your child matures. That’s assuming you have good table manners yourself — Nourse has had to prompt more than one adult not to talk and chew at the same time.
“You have to have a sense of humour too,” she says. And be prepared to make allowances for passing airplanes.
Teddy bears’ tea
Elaine Wong has found a great way to help her three-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, learn manners: They invite the teddies over for pretend dinner. “They are expected to be polite guests,” says Wong. “Sometimes they do well. Other times the animals forget and Mackenzie will remind them.”
Preschoolers love a tea party — boys too, says Ottawa protocol coach Suzanne Nourse. And that’s another fun way to practise your best manners. Get out the fancy tea cups (lemonade can substitute for actual tea), some special snacks and the cloth napkins. Aren’t we all grand?