Kids aren't born knowing how to use a fork or sit up straight when they eat. And unlike reading or science, these topics probably aren't taught at school. Like charity, table manners begin at home. Start teaching your child the right way to eat as soon as he can feed himself. Explain that mealtime manners display kindness and respect for other people at the table. Focus on one or two behaviors at a time so he doesn't get overwhelmed. Correct mistakes gently, and praise him when he does something right. Above all, practice what you preach. With constant reinforcement, good eating habits should become automatic. But in case they don't, we've got solutions for the most common offenses.
Not Washing Her Hands
Manners Makeover Remind your child to get rid of all the germs before she comes to the table. Make the task easier for a toddler by putting a step stool by the sink and keeping her towel within easy reach. Have her use warm water and scrub for 20 seconds -- long enough to sing the ABCs. Most kids 5 and older can wash by themselves, but it's a good idea to inspect and sniff their hands afterward (just to make sure).
Reaching Over to Grab Things
Manners Makeover Your child is trying to do things on her own, so don't scold her. Instead, say something like, "I'd be glad to pass the peas to you, honey. Just remember to ask next time."
Manners Makeover Everybody burps (admit it), and some cultures consider it to be a compliment. But since ours views belches as unsavory and distracting, tell your child to close his mouth when he feels one coming on and to say "excuse me" afterward. Reduce his gassiness by avoiding carbonated beverages before and during the meal. And discourage copycat burping by other kids, which can kill the mood of a nice dinner.
Poor Eating Habits
Eating with His Fingers
Manners Makeover Teach your child how to use a spoon by age 2 and a fork by age 3. Start with small plastic utensils that are easy to handle, and provide lots of encouragement: "This is how big boys do it." You might also review which foods are okay for little hands (corn on the cob, pizza, fruit) and which aren't (yogurt, meat, rice).
Slurping Soup from a Bowl
Manners Makeover Sure, it's a faster way to eat, but slurping is also noisy and yucky to watch. Demonstrate how to dip the spoon into the bowl and hold it in a horizontal position when you bring it to your mouth, so soup doesn't dribble onto the table. Then let your child try it.
Wolfing Down Her Meal
Manners Makeover Shoveling food into your mouth isn't just unappetizing, it's a choking hazard. When your child does it, say, "I took a long time to prepare this meal, so let's try to make it last a little longer." You can also cut your child's meat into small pieces so she's less tempted to take huge bites. If she's old enough to use a knife (around age 5) but still finds it a challenge, offer to slice up half of her dinner, and see whether she can take care of the rest.
Playing with His Food
Manners Makeover It's beneficial for your baby to explore different textures. But once he's out of a high chair, your child shouldn't be blowing bubbles in his milk or building a mountain out of his mashed potatoes. He's probably doing it to test the boundaries or get your attention. Whatever the case, don't play along. Remove the food or drink "plaything," and let him know that if his behavior continues, he won't be allowed to eat at the table with you.
Chewing with His Mouth Open
Manners Makeover Keeping your mouth closed while eating is a learned behavior, so your child will need lots of friendly reminders. If these don't solve the problem, put a mirror in front of his face so he can see how gross it looks. When he talks with a full mouth, say, "Finish swallowing that bite first, then talk." And if he has siblings, let them be your watchdogs: If they catch him openmouthed, they can say, "No 'see food,' please."
Spitting Food onto His Plate
Manners Makeover It's fair to ask your child to take at least one bite of something -- and to swallow it. Let him know that the next time he spits, the meal, including dessert, is done.
No Common Courtesy
Wiping Her Mouth on Her Sleeve (or Yours)
Manners Makeover By age 2, your child is capable of cleaning her face and hands properly. Demonstrate how to do it, and give her two napkins -- one to keep on the table, another to place in her lap. Avoid using a napkin as a bib once your child is 4: She needs to learn to eat neatly.
Making Rude Comments About the Food
Manners Makeover Young kids tend to blurt out the first thought that pops into their head, so you'll need to practice having them think things without saying them ("If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything"). Explain that insulting the food or making sour faces is impolite and hurts the cook's feelings. Help your child find something to compliment ("The potatoes were really good"). Also introduce new foods at home regularly, so he's less likely to turn up his nose at something unfamiliar that's being served.
Interrupting Other People
Manners Makeover Your child may be bored by adult chitchat, but it's important to ask her to wait her turn. If she breaks in while you're talking, say, "Please hold the thought for a minute, and then I'll listen." If she keeps saying, "Excuse me," don't give in. But do explain the one exception: It's all right to interrupt if she really needs to use the bathroom.
Leaving the Table Without Being Excused
Manners Makeover Your child will last longer at a meal if he feels included. Eliminate distractions by turning off the TV, ignoring phone calls, and setting aside the mail. Ask him to tell you three fun things he did today, or see whether he can think of five animals that are black and white. Since kids finish eating faster than adults do (and have a shorter attention span), it's okay to excuse him once he's been sitting for at least 15 minutes. But make sure he asks (and receives) permission, thanks you for the meal, and clears his place setting first.
Eating Before Everyone Else
Manners Makeover If your child is starved because you're eating later than usual, you may need to give her a small snack to tide her over. But there's an easy way to instill patience and respect for the family meal: Start saying grace. It doesn't need to be religious. Try something short and sweet: "We're thankful to all be together. Let's enjoy the food." Kids love rituals and won't mind waiting a little if they know what to expect every night.
Sources: Lyudmila Bloch, etiquette coach and coauthor of The Golden Rules of Etiquette at The Plaza; Peggy Post, coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children; Elizabeth Verdick, coauthor of Dude, That's Rude! (Get Some Manners).
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the December 2007 issue of Parents magazine.