How do you teach your children table manners?

Following on from my previous article on teaching children etiquette, I wanted to hone in on something more specific: how to teach your children table manners, especially with the Christmas and holiday celebrations approaching. 

Family mealtimes are a perfect way to bond with your children, lending itself to calm, loving conversations, where everyone eats their broccoli and no one complains about the food… of course if that were true, you probably wouldn’t be reading this! To reach that level of bliss, you need to teach your children table manners from as early an age as possible. If your children are a little bit older, that’s okay, my tips can still work.

What table manners should you teach your children?

Whilst I can’t promise to make your children love broccoli, I can help you to show them the polite way to ask for and decline food. I will also go through the most important table manners to teach your children and the best way to teach your children table manners, without making it feel like you have to constantly nag them.

  1. Hygiene: No one wants to sit opposite that child with the persistent runny nose, that’s enough to put anyone off their greens! So, firstly, teach your children that if they want to sit at the table they must turn up with clean clothes, washed hands and clean faces. The best way to teach this is leading by example. Go through the routine with them from a young age and they will follow your lead. Soon it will become second nature and they will instinctively ensure their clothes are clean, wash their hands and clean their faces before meals.
  2. Sitting and Waiting: your children need to learn to sit sensibly and wait for everyone else to be seated before starting. If your child is a wriggler or fidget monster, try playing a game. For example: whoever can sit still for 5 mins gets extra dessert. Also, a simple explanation like, ‘Let’s wait for everyone, it’s more fun when we eat together’ can help children to understand and be excited about waiting, instead of seeing it as an annoyance.
  3. Eating in a way that doesn’t put everyone else off: When everyone is seated and your dear darlings start gulping down their food nobody wants to see it being processed in their mouths. It seems there’s always one child in the family that enjoys sharing this with everyone else! If your child is old enough to understand that this is simply disgusting and is doing it for attention, then ignoring it may be the best option. If, however, your child has developed a habit of chewing with their mouth open, it may be best to tackle it when you can sit with them one on one and teach them lovingly the proper way to eat. This will save your child embarrassment and he/she will understand it won’t result in negative attention. When it comes to the next mealtime remember to give lots of praise and positive attention. This is probably the best way to teach your child table manners especially when they are quite young.
  4. Helping out: As children get older, they need to understand the importance of helping, whether that’s at home or with their hosts. Firstly, make sure your children have the ability and knowledge to help. Teach your children the most common table manners first: Show them how to hold glasses and how to set the table. Then when they are confident, teach them the polite way to ask to help out. Something along the lines of: “What shall I do to help you?” or “May I set the table?” shows that they aren’t just offering to be polite, but genuinely want to help.
  5. During the meal: There are a few faux pas you will want your children to be aware of when it comes to learning table manners, particularly for things that happen whilst the meal is in full swing. There will always be parts of a meal that your children won’t like, and their default reaction is usually something along the lines of “Eeeww, that’s gross, I don’t like it!” Whilst this honesty might be okay at home, you must teach your children, as early as possible, that this can be offensive to others and a simple “No, thank you” will suffice. Passing food or other items is generally done towards the left. Salt & pepper should be passed together. Hold glasses from the bottom – it is not pleasant to drink from a glass that is smeared with fingerprints at the top!

There are, of course, plenty more table manners to teach your children, but I recommend starting with those 5. It can be quite overwhelming and you don’t want them to feel burdened.

What is the best way to teach your children table manners and etiquette?

There are a few things that you can do:

  1. Talk to your children and explain. It is amazing how much children understand from a very young age. The more you talk to them and explain why things are done in a certain way, the more likely they are to take things on board. If you aren’t sure yourself why we have certain etiquette rules or expectations, that’s perfectly fine. Use it as an opportunity to investigate with your kids and learn together.
  2. Make it fun: During mealtimes, instead of nagging about washing hands, make it a game. Who can wash the fastest without making a mess? When teaching children how to set the table, why not set up a quiz night where there will there be quick-fire questions on what goes where.
  3. Use Role Play: A friend of mine was having trouble getting her children to take table manners more seriously. One day they went to a wedding and there was an adult there with absolutely appalling manners. He was chewing with his mouth open, stuffing his mouth, talking with his mouth full and making a huge mess with no idea how to make proper use of a napkin. Naturally, he was the topic of conversation afterwards! That was more than enough for her children to realise why table manners are such a big deal! Whilst you might not be lucky enough to have someone like that over for dinner, you can always act it out with your children. Play a game where you are a very rude and ill-mannered dinner guest, if you play it well enough, they will start correcting you! Sometimes kids need to see a visual example to understand and take heed.

What age should you teach your children table manners?

If you start teaching your children table manners when they are around 1 to 2 years old, you will find that by the time they are around 7 to 10 years old they will be ready for even the most formal of dinners.

Children should be taught as soon as they are able to follow instructions. For example, when your child starts sitting at the table in a highchair, use positive reinforcement to teach good table manners. Lots of praise and attention for drinking without spilling water deliberately for example.

As they get older and their understanding of consequences improves, positive explanations of why to do something will work better than scolding and nagging. For example, saying “Remember to use your napkin so your clothes stay clean!” with a smile is more effective than a telling off.