Many families no longer eat at the table together and so many children do not have the opportunity to develop basic table manners. I’m not talking formal table manners; I’m referring to the very basic manners of social/civilized eating. Children over the age of 3 are definitely able to learn the basic courtesies needed for eating with others.
Parents are an important role model and opportunities to practice are essential. Table manners are a skill that benefits a child's social interactions and makes eating out or eating with others a much more pleasurable experience.
By being expected to learn some basic table manners, children learn self-control and restraint which are great life skills. They learn how to act politely within a group. Learning these skills takes time and so try to dedicate at least 3 times a week as a family to sit at the table and eat as a group. Create a positive mood and put some effort into the aesthetics of the experience. Conversation topics should be pleasant. There should be no discussions of upsetting or distressing subjects. Meals should be TV free with perhaps some music playing in the background if everyone likes that. No cell phones or gaming devices should be at the table. Children need to learn how to interact with others and not expect a constant stream of entertainment all the time. Part of the lesson of eating together is to gain some patience. Everyone should share in setting the table as well as clearing the table at the end of the meal.
So let’s dive right into the nitty-gritty details of the most common expectations. Most children age 3 and up should be able to do the following during meals:
- Stay seated for at least 20 – 30 minutes
- Sit relatively straight and calm in the chair with their legs kept under the table
- Chew food with their mouth shut
- Eat relatively quietly without excessive noises of slurping, smacking or chewing
- Use utensils properly and only for eating
- Take proper size bites of food without excessive smashing/tearing or disfiguring food
- Keep food on the plate, keep eating area relatively clean
Things to work to avoid or minimize:
- Bashing/drumming anything at the table
- Getting up unnecessarily multiple times. There should be a clear cut expectation of how long children are expected to sit at the table and when/if they can leave the table
- Touching other’s food
- Throwing or flicking food
- Twisting around in the chair
- Yelling or any loud behavior
- Putting head down or under the table.
- Making a huge mess of food off the plate or on the floor
- Play or fantasy play with food at the table
- “Bathroom talk” or talk about anything “gross” or disturbing should not be allowed at the table during meals.
While this list is not exhaustive, it should give you an idea of what you can expect your child to learn how to do. It takes time, repetition and patience to learn all of these skills. Start small and work your way toward better manners. Everyone wins when your child is able to exhibit the control needed for common table manners either with family members, friends or eating out at restaurants.
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta