What should we ask of them other than the magic words? Although all children understand manners at a different rate, let’s take a look at their average evolution in that matter.
For parents of children aged 2 to 5
As soon as a child can sit at the table, we must lead by example. My mother used to say: “you shouldn’t sing at the table” but this rule doesn’t apply to children for whom songs and games are the best way of introducing most concepts, including good manners.
Before and after the meals
Hand washing is essential, before and after the meals. We wash our hands to the wrist, as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”! This is a fun activity that EVERYONE should share with the little ones… if you know what I mean!
I suggest that parents start with holding the fork, knife and spoon correctly. Because children that young cannot use a knife, the right hand should be holding the utensils at all times. Unfortunately, this American style of holding knife and fork isn’t adapted to left-handed children. Let’s hope that it will soon be more suited to everyone as in the Continental style.
Grabbing the fork (closing your hand on the fork so that your fingers are pointing towards the table) is much easier for a little one than balancing it between their fingers like you do. But if you allow him to use his fork like this, you must teach him the proper way before he will reach his tenth birthday. I suggest you try showing your child the proper way first, to assess his dexterity and to give him a chance. A lesson well learned is a lesson well remembered.
A family meal is like a ballet where everyone can add his part. The upper body goes in action to get fed and avoid dropping everything on the table in the process. Knowing the right way to pass the plates in a joyful dance will focus attention on the conversations rather than on the fear of an eventual mess.
Pass the salad… (Please!)
Plates should always be passed from the left and never in front of you. As soon as your child will be old enough to hold a plate, he should be allowed to take part in this process. To help the youngest ones, you can use a sing-along and change the lyrics to “pas the salad from the left”.
This funny way will help him to remember this rule and to be more confident in his capacity to pass a plate or a bowl but pay attention if you don’t want your dinner to end up on the floor. As for ballet dancers, one will jump in the air and her partner will be there to catch her when she lands.
Remaining seated during the meal and asking to be excused before getting up.
If you want him to understand the importance of asking to be excused before leaving the table, it is best to tell him that you are happier when he is there. Teaching him empathy will help him learn that when it is time to eat, he must eat and when he is finished eating, he must ask permission before getting up.
Politely greet people
The same empathy applies when it is time to salute people you meet or when you leave. To make him understand the importance of politely greeting people, I suggest telling him that when people see him, they are happy and when you leave, if you are nice, it means that you will see them again soon.
For parents of children aged 6 to 9
Did you teach your child how to have good manners so far? Well done! You can now keep on quite easily. Table manners are the same for them and for you. Of course, when you are 6 years old, holding plates and knives is still a strenuous task but you know your child and his capacities. Remember that being constant is of the essence. They copy you and you are not allowed to make mistakes!
Even if adults are not allowed to cut more than one bite-sized piece at a time, today’s children are allowed to cut three. Enforce your rules but make sure they are right! For example, did you know that it is acceptable to put your elbows on the table? It is only forbidden when your plate was put in front of you!
For this generation of youth, it can be interesting to explain the history of the utensils and etiquette traditions. You will find explanations in my book or even on Internet. Knowing that the history of the knife goes back to the knights and that kings and queens didn’t use the fork that was put on the left of their plates for years can be really interesting.
At that age, you can still put together a theme supper. You can decide that you were invited for dinner in a Palace, with the Three Musketeers, with the Prime Minister, at Cinderella’s house now that she married her prince… Take too many dishes and utensils out of your cupboards. Overdo it for fun! Bows and little fingers will make you laugh and demystify the old ways. You are not sure how to act? Ask your grandmother or aunt Simone for help! They will show you the whole shebang!