If you could get a job promotion because you had good table manners, would your habits change? If you knew that your relationships would improve because of good table manners, would you change your tune at the table? MOMS–Listen! We can give our kids an ENORMOUS amount of POWER in life, simply by how we treat meal times!
My husband’s grandfather used to interview and hire people to work at DuPont. Towards the end of an interview process, he would take the potential employee out to eat because grandfather knew that if people conducted themselves well at a meal, then they would conduct themselves well almost anywhere. Unbeknownst to them, potential hires would make it or loose out on a job based on their table manners! I want my kids to have the best possible opportunities in their future and teaching great table manners has a far greater long-term effect then most people realize.
Teaching awesome table manners only works if you spend several times a week sitting together at the dinner table with your children. Research shows that eating together is one of the best ways to help children become well-adjusted and secure individuals, so I highly recommend it. Also, table manners are flat-out impossible to teach from across the room or in front of a TV!
Babies who eat solid food:
Babies are SO SMART! Think of how quickly a puppy can be trained. (And in case you are unaware…babies are smarter than puppies.) Did you know that babies can have good table manners? Some of how you train your baby will depend on your preferences. Do you enjoy cleaning up huge messes? Is that part fun for you? If you like to do that, then let them feed themselves. (I personally find that wiping baby down and changing baby’s cloths three extra times a day adds unnecessary stress to my life.) When you feed baby with a spoon, you are teaching her how to have an expectation of neatness; what does it feel like to eat? You also have an opportunity to teach obedience in a fun and rewarding environment. You are the mom, so you get to make the rules. Baby isn’t allowed to grab the apple sauce!
Toddlers use food as a way to exert control. They might love something one day and hate it the next. They might throw food or refuse to eat. They will play with their food if you let them. Here’s the thing: they don’t get to make the rules. You do.
If everyone sits down together, then we all eat the same thing. I am not a slave or a short-order cook so the toddlers eat what the parents eat. We invite them into the family circle; the family does not orbit around them. When I serve food to toddlers, I give them a teeny tiny amount of each item so that they can successfully eat what they are given without getting overwhelmed, and I let them choose which food they want for a second helping. If they choose to eat nothing, then I let them sit and stare at their food. They are excused when the rest of us are finished with dinner. I wrap the plate and set it before them when they get hungry again.
You can always start over with new food at the next meal, or you can serve that same meal to the child. There were a few times with my most stubborn child that I set the same plate before him 3 meals in a row. The reason was that his refusal to eat had nothing to do with the food. It had to do with him wanting to do the opposite of my instructions. But for the most part, each meal is a new chance and if they refuse to eat, then they get it as their only snack between meals. If we parents let the toddlers control us over food, then they won’t respect our rules as older children–and that can be very dangerous! The parent-child relationship gets strengthened and defined at the dinner table!
There are times when exceptions are important. When we have guests over I will often make child-friendly food (grilled cheese, nuggets, etc), and adult-friendly food (steak, shrimp, grilled veggies mmm…see gluten-free recipes for great grilled vegetables!). I set my kids up for success as often as I can. When I am out to dinner, hosting, or at friend’s house, then my attention is not fully on the kiddos. I don’t want the meal to become a battle when I am not in a place to follow-through with addressing children’s behaviors.
Now the children are becoming more involved with the meal itself. They are setting the table and helping me to prepare dinner. When they are called to dinner, I have taught them to ask, “What can I do to help?” They get drinks, etc. They are not allowed to sit until the cook sits because I want them to take ownership and expect themselves to help. They take their seats after the cook sits down. It’s very fun when they begin to cook and others help them and wait on them.
Let’s get real– The children still need help remembering these things–teaching children to volunteer to help is still a work-in-progress! I wish that every night was as smooth as it sounds on paper, but here is a real-life example of what the training sounds like:
Children are called for dinner and Child 1 sits down.
Me: “Why are you sitting?”
Child 1: “I was called to dinner.”
Me: “Yes. Do you see drinks on the table?”
Child 1: “Oh, yeah.” Child 1 pops up to help just as another child sits.
Child 1 says (very indignant and loud) to Child 2: “You can’t sit down! You have to heeelp!”
Me: “Sweetie, can you please tell your brother the same thing but use a kind voice instead?”
One last note on table manners. Shockingly, complaints about the food are never allowed. Flat-out if you don’t like it, you may not tell me or anyone else at the table. You may not gag or roll your eyes or anything of the kind. (GASP! I do believe that some opinions should not always be expressed.)
The truth is, If my kids can move from being self-centered (I don’t like this!), to being people who are grateful (Wow! She cooked…spent time and money on food for me!) then we all win. We say “Thank You,” whether or not we like the food because gratefulness and appreciation of someone’s time and energy does not require that we actually like the meal. I vocalize this regularly to the kids. We thank God for the food that He provided, we thank the cook, then we eat.
I also do my best to set the kids up for success. During a meal I never say, “Do you like it?” because to say, “no” is rude to the cook. They don’t get to tell any cook…me…a friend’s mom…grandma… that they don’t like the food. I make sure to get their opinions at some point, just not while we are eating. It is no mystery if they love the meal. They ALWAYS praise the food if they love it! Once in a while, especially if I’ve cooked something new, I might say, “Honey did you like last night’s dinner?” and they are free to give me their polite opinion.
Admittedly it is tough when Grandma makes a meal and says, “Do you like it?” (All bright-eyed and happy as she is serving the meal.) None of us are very comfortable with lying, so I’ve taught my children to side-step the question: “It is very interesting, thank you! [insert big smile]” Or, “I’ve never had it made like this before! Thank you! [Smile].” After MUCH repetition, my children understand that they can be grateful for the meal, even if it isn’t their favorite thing. Our relationships with others are more important then our taste buds.
I love mealtime! My children get to learn how to help, serve, be observant, use kind words and cultivate grateful hearts all in the first five minutes! Believe me, if you spend a little extra effort cultivating meal time, and insisting on good table manners, then it pays forward. You will see kind words, decent conversation and thankful hearts spilling into other parts of your lives!