You know that eating together as a family is important to your child's social and intellectual development, so you do it as often as you can. But at times, it can be a test of your nerves -- and intestinal fortitude. Dining a la kids isn't always pleasant or appetizing. (Ever watch a 5-year-old noisily slurp up spaghetti?)
If you're like most parents, you've wished on more than one occasion that your children wouldn't eat with their fingers or burp between greedy bites of pizza. Still, you might have turned a blind eye because of how much time it would take to correct their mistakes or because they just seemed too young to learn the finer points of fine dining.
But to think that way is as wrong as, well, talking with your mouth full. Even very young children can be taught to eat in a (mostly) civilized fashion. "Because children learn by imitation, they'll mimic the way you conduct yourself at the table," says Peggy Post, Parents contributing editor and coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners. That doesn't mean that meals have to be china-and-white-tablecloth formal; instead, focus on simple manners such as placing napkins on laps. "Once you've spelled out the basic rules, reinforce them in a consistent, but not critical, fashion," says Post. Here's how.
"Children are never too small to begin learning good manners," says Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington, in Yarmouth, Maine, which offers classes to individuals and also trains etiquette instructors. In fact, the sooner you start, the faster your kids are bound to catch on. "Teaching manners works better at an early age, because the children are interested in making you happy," explains Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know.
Keep in mind, however, that while kids can learn to say "please" and "thank you" as soon as they begin to speak, it will be a long time before they master all the rules, so be generous with praise and sparing with criticism. By age 6, children can acquire all the basic skills.
While the guidelines for gracious dining aren't necessarily intuitive, there's often a logic behind them that even small children can understand. For example, they'd probably agree that chewing with their mouth open is gross. (Of course, to them, that's not a good reason to refrain from doing it; it's your job to make that case.) They can also see that placing used utensils on the plate rather than on the table keeps the table clean.
Spell out the consequences of insensitive remarks too. Explain that you don't say "yuck" when Aunt Sophie serves broccoli, because you don't want to hurt her feelings -- or suffer a drop-off in dinner invites.
Invent lighthearted ways to keep kids on course. When I was a child, my father recited rhymes about our infractions ("Mary, Mary, if you're able/Keep your elbows off the table"). Johnson uses a puppet named Catherine the Mannerly Cat, who explains the rules and reminds kids when they forget.
Catherine never nags, though -- and neither should you. "It's counterproductive," says Nicole DeVault, who teaches dining skills to children at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel. Before you go to a restaurant or a friend's home, review the behavior you expect, but don't correct your child in public.
"The idea behind etiquette is to make others" -- your children included -- "feel comfortable," DeVault explains. (Not so comfortable, of course, that they put their elbows on the table.)
Get printable place cards and a place-setting guide that makes it easy for kids to help out: