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To watch a 2-year-old eat could give anyone indigestion. Milk is spilled, pasta is slurped, beans are spit out, and cereal is scattered across the floor.
"Young children just want to get the food in their bodies," says Donna Jones, author of Taming Your Family Zoo: Six Weeks to Raising a Well-Mannered Child. "They don't understand why you're bugging them to use their napkin and fork."
It's best that parents not expect too much too soon, says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies. "It's unreasonable to expect a 2-year-old to remember to have her napkin in her lap all the time, but even at this age you can start with the basics," she says.
Fox recommends sitting at the table with toddlers and preschoolers and showing them how to use a knife and fork. "They can learn not to throw food at this age and to sit quietly, but they'll still spill and make messes, and you should be patient."
Note that toddlers who are "acting up" at the table may be signaling that they're full. Pamela Gould, coauthor of Feeding the Kids: The Flexible, No-Battles, Healthy Eating System for the Whole Family, says a lot of parents get upset with really young kids who throw food. "But developmentally, they're trying to say, 'I'm done eating,'" she says.
You can respond, "'Oh, you're done, aren't you? I'll help you get down now." This gradually teaches them to let you know when they're done eating rather than giving you nonverbal – and annoying – signals.
Preschool-age children should be able to hang in there longer, says etiquette instructor Sheila Greer of the Academy of Social Graces, in Fort Myers, Florida. And by the time a child is 6, she should be able to hold her own at a dinner party.
So how do you teach good table manners? Practice, practice, practice, say etiquette instructors. Show your child how to hold a fork, how to drink neatly from a cup, and how to chew with her mouth closed.
Be prepared to remind and reinforce – the more playfully the better. Jones finds that one-word reminders ("Napkin?") or slightly silly challenges ("Okay, who's got their napkin?") work better than nagging.
Keep in mind, too, that your child will mirror everything you do, so keep an eye on your own table manners. You can also order (or make) placemats for children with spaces marked showing where to put plates, silverware, and glasses.
In the end, the goal is to reduce distractions so everyone can focus on the good food and goodwill around the family table.
By age 2, many kids can:
- sit quietly at the table for a few minutes
- use a napkin to wipe their face with prompting
- use a fork or spoon to eat their food, neatly or not
By age 4, many kids can:
- refrain from splattering food or beverages while eating
- chew with their mouth closed, with some prompting
- refrain from talking while eating when prompted
- use a napkin and eat from a spoon or fork correctly
- drink from a cup neatly
- ask to be excused from the table
- tolerate having some of everything served on their plate (although they may not eat it all!)
By age 6, many kids can:
- sit politely at the table when company comes to dinner
By age 8, many kids can:
- help with clearing the table
- compliment the cook if they liked the meal
- refrain from criticizing what is served