How to Help Children to Develop Table Manners

How to Help Children to Develop Table Manners

7 August 2023
Posted by: Chelsea

In the 19th century, many ‘well brought up’ children were raised from their youngest age in a strict socially imposed code of acceptable behaviours at the dinner table.

That dictated often a very formal and starchy conduct children had to conform to when eating.

That was called “table manners”.

Around the mid-20th century, that set of standards started to become increasingly diluted until today, some child development specialists argue that it has long since become extinct. The accuracy of that statement might be disputed but many experts agree more effort is required to encourage sociable behaviours from children when they’re eating at a table with others.

Why table behaviours matter

At 12 months, a toddler throwing food around when eating and finding it hilarious is lovely and often a pleasure for parents to watch – even if it results in a big cleaning job at the end!

However, similar behaviours at say 6 or 8 might be rather less amusing and give grounds for more concern.

The difference between the two is not just a question of age. It arises mainly because eating often involves a degree of social interaction. Like any such engagement, that implies the necessity for a degree of respect for others around you. Just as we might not appreciate certain behaviours from others while we’re eating, they have the right to expect likewise from us.

Helping children to develop good behaviour when eating is an essential part of aiding their growth as polite and socially-aware human beings. It’s part of the same storyline as helping them to understand why bullying is wrong or how to use the toilet considerately with respect for others.

Setting the scene

To help a young child develop an awareness of the social nature of much eating and to encourage their development of good behavioural standards, the following points might help to set the scene:

  • Whatever the constraints of modern lifestyles, try to find the time for the entire family to sit and eat together several times per week;
  • make the meal fun. Ensure there’s plenty of chat, jokes and laughs. Children should eagerly anticipate a meal, not just to assuage their hunger but also as a social experience;
  • if there are difficult things to discuss, park them for another time. Arguments and squabbles at the table will only encourage younger children to devalue the time and experience;
  • try not to make eating a very rushed process that conveys the impression that everyone wants to get it over with as soon as possible so they can get on with their real lives! Children pick up on these things and absorb them into their value systems, risking them regarding eating as largely a mechanical necessity.

Behaviours to avoid or encourage at the table

The top tips here include:

  • forbid the use of games, toys, PCs and phones during a meal. Very young children under say 2-3 might be excused from this, within reason;
  • do not permit children to leave the table until everyone has finished eating. Again, some judgement might be needed here with very young children under 2-3:
  • make sure the child is engaged constantly throughout the meal by talking and listening to them;
  • don’t allow ‘eating ahead’ – the process whereby a child rushes to gobble their main course and is immediately given the sweet to eat while everyone else is still eating their main plate. Apart from anything else, ‘scoffing’ too quickly is not good for the digestive system;
  • encourage the child from the earliest practical age to use cutlery correctly – based upon whatever the norms are in your prevailing dining culture;
  • where family circumstances or the child’s age means different eating times, get them to sit down with you at the table while you eat – even if they have already eaten;
  • even in fun, don’t allow children to engage in food fights at the table;
  • show them how to remove food from their mouth discretely if they need to do so while eating.

All this can be done in a fun environment and not as a set of lessons.

Young children can be demanding and difficult at the table but persevere and the investment will benefit them enormously in later life.

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