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.