Q: Table manners are such an issue at our house that eating together is downright unpleasant. Our primary difficulty is getting our daughter...
Q: Table manners are such an issue at our house that eating together is downright unpleasant.
Our primary difficulty is getting our daughter, age 7, to chew with her lips closed. She seems unable or unwilling to do it. She does as we have requested if I watch her every minute while making a game of it. To do this requires the entire meal time. My husband’s response is to nag her constantly and yell when she ignores his request.
Our son, age 5, is fine with the request and responds quickly to a reminder when he doesn’t. Any suggestions?
A: Most parents teach children table manners between the ages of 3 and 8. The basics include putting the napkin on the lap, using utensils appropriately, passing food from person to person and using polite language such as, “Please pass the … ” and “No thank you, I don’t care for … “
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Even beyond age 8, children need parents’ coaching on the refinements of table manners, including how to behave when guests join the family, when they’re a guest at another’s table and when they’re in restaurants. It’s a long, complicated set of rules that are important for living in civilized society.
In the American culture, it’s generally considered polite to refrain from talking when you have food in your mouth, and to chew food quietly with lips closed. You and your children are bogged down on this particular manner.
Most parents simply model this rule for children; children usually catch on quickly with only a few reminders and reprimands. For many reasons, teaching this skill has turned into an unpleasant dinnertime power struggle in your home. (A power struggle is an emotional battle between parent and child over who is in control.)
To be blunt, you’ve made too big a deal about this. Your husband has become emotional, and you’ve made a game of it. Your daughter realizes that by not doing as you request, she’s controlling the emotional tenor of dinnertime, something she can’t resist. She also knows that ultimately she controls how she eats.
The attention she receives is paying off for her. Children need attention and, unfortunately, your daughter is now in the habit of controlling the dinnertime atmosphere by receiving negative attention for her irritating behavior.
In order for her to learn to eat as you require, you’ll need to stop giving her attention for this negative behavior. Also, you’ll need to engage her and her brother in pleasant conversation while occasionally noticing and appreciating any manners that you deem appropriate:
• You know how to cut meat with a knife! Good for you.”
• “I see that you wiped the spaghetti sauce off your face with a napkin. That’s using good manners.”
• “Saying, ‘Please, pass the bread’ is the polite way to ask for seconds. I’m so happy when you use good manners.”
You could ban your daughter from the table when she eats with her mouth open, but doing so would likely be too disruptive.
To reach your goal, it’s best to completely ignore her by turning your face from her when she eats with her mouth open. Also, be sure to pay attention to her when she eats with her lips closed. Be subtle rather than obvious as you use your attention wisely to reinforce positive and ignore negative behavior.
You must be consistent in this regard. It will take anywhere from three days to three weeks for her to eat as you expect.
Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at email@example.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists