My husband and son were sitting at a table next to a mom with her two kids. She had been trying unsuccessfully to get her kids to sit down properly and finish their meal. She eyed my son sitting quietly and, with an exasperated chuckle, said to my husband, “How do you do it?”

The art of raising kids with great table mannersFirst, a disclosure: my son isn’t always this “good” at the dining table. The strangest phrases have come out of our mouths to get him to behave, from “Please stop scraping your fork along the table,” to “The bench is not for jumping.” But generally, I’m fortunate that he has been relatively easy during meal times and at restaurants.

That said, how can young kids exhibit decent table manners? Is it a matter of teaching etiquette and reminding them about belching and napkins and passing the salt?

I found that the best way to raise kids with awesome table manners is simply to model them yourself.

I suppose you can say that this post isn’t so much about what we parents need to say to our kids to have good manners, but what we should be modeling ourselves to start. So here’s a refresher:

 

Create a positive eating experience.

Kids can display poor table manners because they’re not enjoying themselves (Read: tired, ignored, over-stimulated). Consider the following ways you can make meal times more pleasant:

  • Engage everyone in conversation. Mealtimes at our house usually involve my husband and I discussing topics between each other, sometimes at the cost of ignoring our little guy. While he should definitely be exposed to adult conversation (so he can pick up new words and realize that his parents’ lives extend much farther than coloring and play dough), he should also be included in the conversation. We’ll do this either by talking to his level and explaining what we’re discussing, or asking one another, including him, how our day had gone.
  • Ask kids to help at the dinner table. They’ll love helping and handling real, adult items like the salt shaker and napkins, as well as helping to set the table.
  • Talk about food. With conversations and meals going hand in hand, directing the focus back towards the food on our plate helps keeps kids engaged and present in what they’re doing. Ask your child what her favorite part of the meal is. Talk about the colors in the food, the textures, the scents.
  • Establish the importance of family dinners. Making a routine of gathering together for dinner has been cited for improved vocabulary, less obesity and more discipline with kids, just to name a few benefits of this simple ritual.

 

Encourage positive behavior and ignore the slurps and burps.

Yes, you read right: Ignore the soup-slurping. The belching. The eating of the salad with hands. (“My fork has too many leaves when I poke it,” my four-year-old argued. Fair enough—he’s a four-year-old eating salad for crying out loud.)

Save for the occasional outburst, I’ve found that most children’s less-than-perfect manners aren’t ill-intended. The more I point out the misdeeds and admonish my son for his lack of manners, the likelier he will focus on them instead of brushing them off. Any attention is still attention.

Instead, ignore it. If anything, remind your kids lightheartedly to say their please’s, thank you’s and excuse me’s, but leave it at that. They’ll learn more in watching you say excuse me and seeing you sit properly and not burping after every bite. Focus more on praising their proper behavior, such as wiping their mouths with their napkins and sitting patiently while they wait for their food to be prepared. Those are the types of behaviors that warrant more attention than the occasional yelp or dropped utensil.

 

Teach kids and model how to express their opinions about food

“Yuck!” a child might say in response to a new food your dinner host has just offered him. Before chastising kids for their honest opinions, keep in mind that kids simply say what’s on their mind with little social filters. Instead of berating him for not liking a food, offer him a different way to say it, such as “No, thank you.” Reinforce that while he will sometimes eat food he doesn’t like, he should still be polite in his response so as not to hurt someone else’s feelings.

 

Choose your outings wisely.

One of the best ways to ease kids into proper table manners in public is to start off with safe places. Go to the diner with loud music, big booths and tons of other families. Or eat at the restaurant with no waiter service and therefore less waiting (think Chipotle).

Show your kids how to fill their time while waiting—talk about the restaurant’s interesting decor or bring crayons and little toys to occupy your kids (but not so much that they lose sight of what eating together is all about). And describe the process—tell your kids that the cooks are now preparing the food, that the waitress is writing up the check. They’ll feel less stifled knowing there’s a point to all the waiting.

And of course, venture out when your kids are ideally at their best—well-rested, hungry but not ravenous, eager to get out of the house. Prepare the conditions so that they all point favorably to a fun dining experience, leading to better table manners.

What are your best tips for encouraging great table manners? Share them in the comments below!

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