Some of the traits you love about your kindergartner or first-grader -- her boundless energy, honesty, and hands-on approach -- may be the very things that drive you absolutely crazy at mealtime. If you're at the end of your rope with how she behaves at the table, consider yourself in good company and take comfort in this: "You can teach any 5- or 6-year-old basic table manners in a few weeks, but it takes repetition and practice," says Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., great-granddaughter of manners guru Emily Post and coauthor of Emily Post's Table Manners for Kids. "You should introduce no more than two or three concepts at a time. Otherwise, it's too much information for a young child to process." Post and other manners experts suggest four simple steps that will end suppertime shenanigans once and for all.
For starters, limit meet-ups to two hours, and try not to divert from your daily routine too much (for example, be sure to time gatherings so they don't cut into naptime). Be prepared to pack up your diaper bag early when your child seems cranky or tired. "If your toddler isn't having fun after 30 minutes, maybe it's not the best activity for her that day, and that's okay. You can try again next time," says therapist and parent coach Tammy Gold, owner of Gold Parent Coaching, in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Two to four toddlers (with an adult for each) is ideal for a playdate -- any more can make things overwhelming for kids. No matter who's been invited, don't feel bad if your little one doesn't really engage very much with her playmates, says Cheryl Rode, Ph.D., clinical director of the San Diego Center for Children. It's perfectly normal if she mostly plays next to them. "Parallel play is typical during the toddler years, when children don't yet have the skills to truly interact with each other," assures Dr. Rode. Over time, kids will begin to imitate each other's actions. For instance, if your daughter's playmate starts running around the room, she might join him -- and then start jumping up and down, which he'll begin to copy too. This is a sign of children's growing social awareness, and an early step toward developing friendships.
Say Please and Thank You Without Prodding
You taught your child these words when he was 2 or 3, but maybe he uses them inconsistently or only with re-minders from you. If your kid tells you "Oh, yeah" when you ask if he'd like a drink or he snatches a roll out of your hand without thanking you, help him understand why it's important to be gracious. Dr. Senning suggests explaining to your child that "please" changes a demand into a request and sounds nicer while "thank you" shows someone that you care about (or appreciate, if your child understands the word) what he's done.
To get these words to become automatic for your child, emphasize and enforce them at every meal. Start the day with "Please come to the table for breakfast." When your child says he wants milk, don't pour it until he says "please" and wait until he says "thank you" to hand him the glass.
More Simple Steps to Teach Kids Table Manners
Have a Seat
By the time kids are 5 or 6, they should be able to sit at the table and remain relatively wiggle-free for at least 20 minutes, says Lynn Rosen, author of Elements of the Table. Start by finding a comfy (yet appropriate) position for your child. Chances are you no longer use a booster seat at the table for her, but your chairs are designed for adults. A cushion might help, and you may find that using a stool from the bathroom as a leg rest also works wonders to keep her facing forward.
At restaurants -- when you know the meal is going to last at least an hour or so -- take a planned trip to the bathroom right after ordering in order to let your kid stretch, suggests Rosen. Also talk to your child in advance about what to do if something goes wrong, like a crayon falls or she spills.
Make Friends with the Fork
Five- and 6-year-olds eat so many finger foods that they can legitimately be confused about what parts of their meal require utensils. "Let your child know that if he's unsure, it's best to ask you," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. And be consistent about what you require: If, for instance, you don't put a fork in your child's lunch box to eat his mandarin oranges, he'll think it's fine to use his fingers to do it at Grandma's house. Another way to get your kid more comfortable with utensils: Put him in charge of setting the table. You can say something like, "Now that you're getting older, I think you're ready for a grown-up job of getting the table ready for dinner. We'll do it together the first few days, and then you can do it by yourself." Talk to your child about what to expect at restaurants as well. "Let your kid know that it's okay to wipe his mouth with the fancy cloth napkin in a restaurant," adds Rosen. "Many kids this age think you'll be upset with them if they get the napkin dirty."
All the "pleases" and "thank-yous" in the world will seem insignificant if your kid responds, "Eww, that looks gross," when your best friend asks her if she'd like an egg-salad sandwich. Teach your child that if she doesn't want to eat food offered at someone else's house, she simply has to respond, "No, thank you." You may be inclined to push -- "Honey, why don't you give it a try?" -- but then you're inviting a bigger manners no-no: What if she hates it and spits it out? "It's important for your child to taste new foods and work on picky-eating habits, but save it for your house," says Rosen. Using this approach, it seems like it would be easy for a kid to "no thank-you" her way to never eating a green vegetable. But Rosen suggests that, at home, you follow your established rules for trying food; just make sure your kid understands the boundaries.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.