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The Competent Parent: Table manners

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Table Manners

Dear Dr. Debbie,

At what age should proper table manners be expected? My husband is constantly admonishing our six-year-old to use his napkin, keep his hands off his food, stop wiggling his legs, and ask to be excused when he’s finished, among other interruptions to our otherwise pleasant mealtimes. I think my question is more about my husband than my child.

Hard to Swallow

Don’t miss last week’s post on dealing with summer boredom.

Dear Hard to Swallow,

Your husband is rushing things and apparently upsetting table time. Age eight is the general expectation for following the common courtesies of dining together. One way to get there by then is for adults to model proper manners themselves. If your table partner needs a little help, you can do so politely and not ruin the moment. Pointing out the tomato sauce on a child’s chin can be done from across the table by acting as a mirror using one’s own napkin. Parents can set a good example by asking, “Please” for something to be passed, and saying, “Thank you” when it is received. The more you use this with each other in front of him, the quicker he’ll catch on.

A fun way for a young child to practice table manners is the timeless (pretend) tea party. Join your son and his teddy bears with empty cups, or water, lemonade or a fruity iced tea. Add some (pretend or real) cheese and crackers or finger sandwiches. He might sport a bow tie and you a dressy hat. Or just pretend to have these props as you shake out a (real or imaginary) napkin to put on your lap. By the way, if you sit at a child-size table, there’ll be no wiggling of legs. You’ll ask each other, “Would you be ever so kind as to pass the sugar bowl?” and reply “T’would be my pleasure.” You can exaggerate all the niceties of formal dining as make-believe characters. You could just be yourselves, but why not become wedding guests, or royalty? This is a great way to get in practice for an upcoming formal occasion – a real wedding, or a sit-down dinner for Dad’s work.

As for the permission to be excused, this can be modeled, too. “Will you excuse me while I take this call?” is the polite way for an adult to leave the table, assuming the call is more urgent than spending uninterrupted time with the present company. The adult can then return to the table with an apology and brief explanation as to the necessity of the call. The well-mannered diner, by the way, turns the phone off. The benefit of family meal time, in contrast to each person eating alone, is to strengthen the bonds among you, sharing conversation of interest to one another. Often a child is finished with both of these needs quicker than the adults. You can prompt him when the time seems to be at hand, “Are you finished eating, Gregory? We’ve enjoyed your company.” Some families institute chores as part of the winding up of dinner, starting with each person clearing his own plate. However your family prefers to handle a child’s leaving the table, please show consideration by letting him go without a big hassle.

Bon Appétit,
Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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