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Dinnertime Discipline

Child playing with food

In the short time it takes for me to put all the dishes out and join my children at the table, my 7-year-old will already have given new meaning to the words graphic tee. Ketchup smeared across the front of his shirt is never a surprise, nor is his saucy mouth being wiped across his sleeve. Let's face it: Every child is a dinner-table nightmare until taught some manners, but with our often frantic lives it's just not happening. "We're eating in shifts or in the car. The opportunities to sit down to a meal together, where manners are taught and practiced, are getting lost," says Amber Tankersley, Ph.D., associate professor of early-childhood development at Pittsburg State University, in Kansas. If you've had enough of the burping, slurping, and sloppy stains, dig into these genius ideas for taming rude table manners--and you won't have to sweat the big holiday meals ahead.

The Goal: Using a napkin, not his shirt, to wipe hands
"When a child constantly wipes messy hands on his clothes, it's probably an unconscious move," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a parent coach and author of Raising Happiness. "He just wants quick relief from the food gunk."

How to Get There: Start by offering a reward that your child will be stoked about. "When one of my sons was into washable tattoos, I'd let him choose a cool tattoo for his arm if he could get through dinner without using his sleeve," says family physician Deborah Gilboa, M.D., founder of AskDoctorG.com and mom of four boys ages 5 to 11. Or begin a family "Golden Napkin Award." Bestow a gold-colored (yellow will do) paper napkin on the member who goes a week without any admonishments.

Here's another trick you may not have tried: shirtless dinners! His sleeve or other favorite wiping spot is no longer available, so he'll need to reach for that napkin, notes Dr. Gilboa. If he goes for his pants instead, take those off too! (Obviously this is something you do only at home and until your child gets with the program.)

The Goal: Giving compliments, not "yucks," to the chef
Picky eating is epidemic among young kids and considering a cook's feelings doesn't come naturally, so it's hard for them to hold back on sharing exactly what they are thinking. "Social graces aren't automatic, so you have to model and teach them nicer ways to express opinions," says Dr. Tankersley.

How to Get There: "Tell kids as young as 3 or 4 years old that saying 'eeww' or 'ick' about the menu can hurt the feelings of the person who cooked it," says Dr. Gilboa. You don't want them to lie but you do want them to learn words that sting less. "'No thanks,' 'Maybe I'll try it next time,' or 'Sorry, it's not that yummy to me' are all more polite than 'Gross!'" suggests Dr. Gilboa, adding that "We taught our kids to use the code word interesting for describing a food they don't like."

The Goal: Asking nicely for food to be passed
"When children see something they want, their first instinct is to reach for it," says Ashley Harlow, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children's Hospital and Medical Center, in Omaha.

How to Get There: "Set boundaries of personal space," says Dr. Harlow. "Put large place mats below each place setting, explaining that arms and other body parts shouldn't extend beyond the borders." Creating these fences--call them "superhero force fields" for fun--requires kids to use their magic words when they want something since they can't reach beyond them. (They also help cut down on spills!) Build in practice by passing dishes family-style in manageable-size bowls.

The Goal: Chewing with her mouth closed
Little ones have a tendency to take huge bites, which unfortunately means that what they're chewing stays in full view, laments Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., codirector of The Emily Post Institute, in Burlington, Vermont.

How to Get There: When you spot a monster-size spoon- or forkful headed for your kid's mouth, intercept it before it gets there: "Whoa, that's too much! Why don't you put half of that back on your plate." Too late? Explain that you can't understand what she's saying if she tries to talk with a full mouth. "Assure excited kids who are worried about missing their turn to speak that once they chew and swallow, you'll be ready to listen," says Dr. Senning. You might start a family signal where the person with a full mouth sticks up an index finger when she wants everyone to stay on-topic until she can talk.

Child feeding dog

The Goal: Making conversation, not burps, at the table
Kids like to belch because, well, it's completely inappropriate and, as a result, hilarious. It usually gets a lot of attention--positive (from siblings and friends) and negative (from parents). "Kids love behaviors that get a big reaction," says Dr. Harlow.

How to Get There: Your mission: Be the most boring audience ever. Ignore the burping and even talk right over it--about the weather, your job, or decorating the house (a snoozefest for kids). If the other kids can't help but giggle, put your burper in a time-out away from the table or else he'll keep on going, suggests Dr. Harlow.

You can also try a little peer pressure. "When my daughter was 8 years old and doing the whole burping thing," recalls Dr. Carter, "I told her how one of her boy cousins, who was the same age, burped in front of their three teenage cousins and they looked at him as if to say, 'How gross and childish.' She idolized those teenagers, so burping lost a lot of its cool."

The Goal: Eating with utensils instead of fingers
"Using a utensil can be a challenging skill to master and especially frustrating for a child, even a 9- or 10-year-old, when she's hungry," says Dr. Carter. Technology may not be helping either. "Basic table skills, like properly using a fork and knife, seem to be showing up later," says Robbie Levy, a pediatric occupational therapist in White Plains, New York. "One theory is that electronic games don't develop the fine motor skills needed for these tasks," she notes. Plus, they take away time previously spent on activities that do help, such as cutting out snowflakes or molding with Play-Doh.

How to Get There: Start by being flexible about the utensil a young child wants to use. Ditch the toddler fork if she's begging for the big fork, for instance. Or if she's having trouble maneuvering a fork, stick with a spoon a bit longer. "The more they watch what other people are eating with, the more they'll want to use the appropriate utensil," says Dr. Tankersley. Fun little plastic appetizer forks from a party store or even a fast-food spork can also help bridge the gap between using fingers and utensils. Setting out two forks or two spoons can help, too, especially if your child doesn't like different foods to touch.

The Goal: Putting his bottom on the chair
Got a kid who eats standing next to his chair or rests one knee on it as if he has a train to catch? Your little commuter may want out of his adult-size chair because it isn't comfy. "When a child's feet are dangling and his posture is off, it's harder for him to use his hands and to sit long enough," says Levy.

How to Get There: First, if necessary, put a step stool underneath his feet or a pillow behind his back so his whole body is better supported. "Ideally, he should be sitting upright with both his hips and his knees at a 90-degree angle," notes Levy. Next, make sure you're not expecting your child to sit for periods outside his developmental league. "Abilities will vary, but a 3-year-old can probably last for seven to ten minutes," says Dr. Harlow.

Then steal these preschool-teacher tips: "When one of our students stands or starts wandering away at snacktime, I'll say, 'When you get up from the table, I assume that you're done. Let's clear your plate.' After a while, hungry kids learn to stay seated," says Dr. Tankersley. Or tell your jack-in-the-box that he's frozen in his chair until you come around and unstick him with a magical tap, she suggests.

Got a bigger kid? "Somewhere in the 6- to 8-year-old range, a child should be able to sit through the duration of a normal family dinner," notes Dr. Harlow, "which means 20 to 30 minutes." If you have an older kid who stands, put him in charge of cleaning up all the food crumbs that got dropped on the floor during the meal (sweeping up is fun for preschoolers, but not so much for grade-schoolers).

The Goal: Doing more eating and less playing
When a child is blowing bubbles into milk or piling all her food together into a disgusting mix, she could be bored, full, not really feeling the night's menu, or just plain curious, says Dr. Carter.

How to Get There: One of your main goals is to create positive feelings about food--which also helps encourage more adventurous eating--so kids should be able to have a little fun at the table when it's appropriate, says Dr. Tankersley. "Our preschoolers love diving their Teddy Grahams into pudding or making little hammers out of cheese cubes and pretzel sticks," she notes. You just have to decide where your family's line is about what's unacceptable--say, building a green-bean fort--and let your child know. If the antics don't stop, jump right to: "It looks like you're done eating," and take away the misused food or drink.

If boredom seems to be to blame, steer the conversation toward a topic she'll be more interested in. When all else fails and your child is clearly done eating, consider an early dismissal so you at least can finish in peace.

Moms dish their best tips for mealtime etiquette.

Involve Everyone
"My husband and I made up a game where we'd all police each other's manners. It's a fun way to address the problem and it prevents the parents from being seen as the bad guys!"
Therese Cofer, mother of five; Charlotte, NC

Make a Pass
"When my girls were 3 and 6 years old, we began passing a toy flower in a pot around the table to prevent constant interruptions. Whoever had the pot would be able to talk, and we would give that person our full attention. When we find ourselves starting to talk over each other at the table, my younger daughter now says, 'We need the flower.'"
Pearl Peszeki, mother of two; McLean, VA

Dine Out
"Taking our kids to casual restaurants gave them great practice. We'd all put our napkin on our lap, keep our elbows off the table, and use our indoor voice. We told them in advance that we'd have to leave if they didn't behave. Sometimes we wound up taking our dinner to go, but following through paid off."
Jodie Fratantuno, mother of two; Los Angeles, CA

Put It in Writing
"I keep the rules that I expect my 4-year-old and my 10-year-old to follow written on a chalkboard next to our table. Some reminders are still necessary--and occasionally, consequences."
Zshila Alsop, mother of two; Charlotte, NC

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.