Before I chat about child table manners, I want to explain this photo. Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Ellyn Satter speak live. Ellyn's work is the foundation for mine. She's easily the most influential person in my career. And while I've thoroughly studied her work and used it with families for more than 7 years, I had never met her. By the time that I was finished university, had started to pay down my student loans, and could afford to travel to a US destination for her in-person training seminars, she retired. But yesterday she came out of retirement to present in Vancouver. You bet that I was going to be there - I may have been the first to register :) The table manners question was asked of her, and it was fantastic to see that she responded with the same answer as I give parents.
Table manners, like most matters of etiquette, can cause a strong reaction in us - really getting under our skin. When it comes to table manners, parents usually approach me in two ways (which really are about the same thing). Either they ask about how to best teach kids to have good table manners. Or, they’re embarrassed about their child’s messy eating and apologize to me for it.
When it comes to table manners, the best course of action is to not sweat about it. Like many other things, your actions speak louder than words. Kids naturally have an internal drive to master things and grow up. Eat together with your child on a daily basis. Use good table manners yourself – use utensils, a napkin, say “please” and “thank you” when you ask someone to pass you the pepper, don’t get up and down from the table like a jack-in-the-box. Your child will pick up your good habits.
That is, as long as they aren’t staring at a screen during the meal (iPad, phone etc).
Don’t sweat your child’s messy eating. It’s normal for kids to use a combination of utensils and fingers into the school-age years, depending on the food and how hungry they are. And like all things, some kids learn to use utensils faster than others.
The most important factor for kids to learn to love healthy eating is to enjoy eating at the table. This requires the table to be a pleasant place. Constant nagging about table manners (“elbows off the table”, “use your fork”, etc) can really get in the way of kids enjoying meals.
It takes a lot of effort to organize yourself to plan and prepare meals and snacks and to have an adult sit down with your child to eat together. Congratulate yourself for accomplishing this and know that over time your child will learn good table manners.