A few years ago, my family was invited to dinner. As we sat down, my daughter, Campbell, and my son, Jackson (then 3 and 6), placed their napkins in their laps. Yes, I thought. Well done. Then the salmon arrived. “Eeeeww,” Jackson muttered as a piece of fish was placed in front of him. When I shot him my Mommy Death-Ray Eyes, he took a bite, but after two chews, he opened his mouth and just let the salmon plop onto his plate. I apologized endlessly to our friends, who were quite nice about it. Like many parents, my husband and I had been teaching our kids table manners forever. But we never guessed that we’d need to explain that “eeeeww,” while not acceptable at home, is quadruple-y unacceptable among company. “It’s a progression,” says Daniel Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute. “You can’t just lay out the rules once and then expect that to be the end of it.”
Exasperating? Sure. But well worth it. “Good manners are social skills that help your kid succeed in class, with friends, with future employers. They give him the confidence to navigate his world,” says Post Senning. So here, an indigestion-saving guide on what to teach when and how to fix bad behavior — no nagging required. Then, try our Manners Bootcamp, a five-day table manners makeover plan to tame the wildest of your beasts!
Ages 3 to 5
Add On Rules
You should teach table manners to kids under age 3 — especially how to say “please” and “thank you.” “If you don’t, you’re going to have to unteach bad behavior later on,” says Donna Jones, author of Taming Your Family Zoo: Six Weeks to Raising a Well-Mannered Child. But once your kid hits preschool, his attention span expands and he’s better at following directions. So add on new table rules!
What to Teach
- To sit at the table — really sit, no wiggling or wandering around — for about 15 to 30 minutes.
- To wait until everyone is seated to start eating. Simple as that.
- How to use a napkin. First, show your kid how to place it in her lap when she sits down. Next, show her how to use it — ahem, not her sleeve — to wipe her mouth and replace it on her lap. “Once you’ve explained the basics, just say ‘napkin’ — your kids will know what to do without things getting negative,” says Jones.
- How to chew with his mouth closed. “Take a bite of food and chew with a wide-open mouth so your kid sees all the mashed-up food. Ask, ‘Is this grossing you out? That’s why we chew with our mouth closed.’ It explains the rules in a light, fun way,” says Jones.
- The polite way to ask for food: “Please pass the potatoes” rather than “I want more potatoes.”
- Not to make comments like “Yuck!” Preschoolers often don’t understand the concept of hurt feelings — so just tell your child it’s not nice to say bad things about the food. Have her say: “I don’t really care for this.”
What You Can't Expect
- “To have a neat eater,” laughs Post Senning.
- For kids to remember their manners. You’re going to have to remind and re-remind your preschooler constantly. “We came up with a signal so I’d avoid bugging my daughter about chewing with her mouth open. I’d put my finger up to my lips and she’d correct her behavior,” says Jones.
Ages 6 to 7
This is the age when kids learn how their actions affect other people (and vice versa), which can help them understand the whys behind manners.
What To Teach
- How to use a knife. By now, kids have developed the fine motor skills necessary to cut their own food. Show them how to gently slice back and forth, rather than stabbing at the chicken.
- Why it’s not appropriate to make negative comments about the food. Around first grade, kids really start to get the whole empathy thing — and you can explain how saying “Eeeeww!” can hurt the cook’s feelings, says Jones.
- How to dispose of food you don’t like. “The rule is that it goes out the way it went in,” says Post Senning. “So if your kid used his fork to take a bite of asparagus, the asparagus goes quietly back to the plate on the fork.” If the food’s been chewed (major gross-out potential), teach your child to discreetly spit it into his napkin.
- To thank the person who prepared the meal.
What You Can't Expect
- Perfection. Do, however, seize teachable moments — even if they’re manners your kid might not be quite ready for. For example, if you’re at a fancy wedding reception with different pieces of silver- and tableware, explain what each one is used for. Yes, he may forget, but it’ll help your grade-schooler feel more confident the next time.
Ages 8 to 10
By now your child is flying solo a lot more (going to sleepovers, heading to a neighbor’s house to hang), which makes it an ideal time to talk about how he should behave as a guest — and host.
What To Teach
- To be a good host: Offer your guests something to eat and drink and never eat something without first serving it to friends.
- Cell phones and video games do not come to the table. Mealtime is a social occasion, and having your face buried in Minecraft does not count as socializing.
- How to serve and pass food at the table. Teach things like using the serving spoon — not her own spoon — to dish from a common bowl. Also, if someone asks her to pass the bread, she should hand over the bread basket, not just a single slice.
What You Can't Expect
- To master their manners. “There may be some things that take longer to sink in,” says Jones. Just keep at it! “The older kids get, the more motivated they are to behave properly to avoid awkward social situations,” she adds. Don’t expect for the “lessons” to be over, either. Random things are bound to pop up, like how to eat artichokes. Yum!
Shaun Dreisbach, who lives in Essex, VT, is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting, health, and fitness.