I'm embarrassed to admit this but my daughter has atrocious table manners. She can't sit still for more than a few minutes. Not so long ago, she even went through a doggie phase where she pretended that she was a puppy and ate her meals at our feet. Now that my little girl is officially five-years-old, I've decided this behavior must stop.
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How do I transform my jumping bean into a well-mannered young lady? In the past I probably would have thrown some money at the problem and enrolled her in etiquette classes. Here in New York City that costs around $200 for four hours of training. But if there's one thing I've learned over the past five years it's that cash rarely solves problems when the real issues stem from a lack of firm parenting.
So I decided to call Cindy Post Senning, an etiquette expert with The Emily Post Institute, for some guidance on table manners. I wanted to know what I can realistically expect from a five-year-old and what tips she could provide me on how to teach young children to behave properly during meals. Here's her advice:
Table Manners 101
Believe it or not, by the time a child reaches the age of five he should be able to sit at the table for 20 to 30 minutes, participate in dinner conversation, hold his utensils properly and chew with his mouth closed, says Senning.
Wow, I didn't realize just how refined a five-year-old can be. Now the question is how I go about changing my child's mealtime habits to be more inline with other young children's manners. According to Senning, I should simply explain that the time has come to learn proper table etiquette. Then, since kids like rewards, I should consider offering a small bribe. In my daughter's case, Senning recommends telling my little girl that once she can sit at the table for 25 minutes she can have her best friend over for dinner. To jump start the process, I may even up the ante and offer a real tea party.
During the transformation period, I think it's important to set some realistic expectations for your child. I told my daughter, for example, that we will start off with her sitting at the table for 10 minutes and slowly work our way up to half an hour. Then once she is no longer walking around the house during dinner, I can start refining some of her other habits.
Senning also believes table manners are best taught when families eat together. But that doesn't mean that you must have a formal dinner every night. A handful of group meals throughout a week should be enough to cement some good habits.
Finally, parents need to make an effort and engage their kids during dinner. While you don't have to converse about super heroes and princesses, it would be helpful to ask about school or what happened at the playground. (Asking what made your child laugh at circle time is always a good conversation starter.) Mothers and fathers should also share something about their day, but they need to make sure to explain the details in a way little ones can understand.
Table manners, of course, are more complex than just sitting through dinner and learning to chew with one's mouth closed. So I have to admit that there may come a time when I do invest in etiquette lessons. But I think that day won't come until my little girl is in high school. In the meantime, I'll try my best to lead by example and make sure to keep a copy of Emily Post's Table Manners for Kids handy.
How important are table manners to you and your family?
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