Manners: To Teach or Not to Teach … That is the Question.
Teaching table manners to preschoolers is a dicey topic, so to speak. Parents are encouraged to really feel this out for themselves before they either enforce something they don’t believe in, or remain passive about something they truly value. The answer for each family rests with that family.
Most parents seek balance. They want mealtimes to be fun and relaxing—but if their children behave like animals, they might actually feel frustrated and tense. They want their children to show decent manners in restaurants and at other people’s tables—but they don’t want to impose rigid rules at home to achieve that outcome.
Many parents wait. They have general rules, but they wait to teach specific manners until their children are older and can naturally learn skills more easily. Other parents feel it’s better to start early, rather than correct “bad habits” later on. Neither is right or wrong. The right path for you is the one that feels best in your family. The trick is to find your path, stick to it the best you can, watch your little ones for cues, and make adjustments as you go.
If you decide to go in for a little helping of manners, here are some nuggets to get started:
Prepare: Set the Stage
Increase the odds of success and enjoyment as you attempt to tame your sweet little beast. Think of this as a warm-up before your workout. Here are guidelines for a great start:
Have realistic expectations. Children are not mini-adults; they go through real developmental changes that drive their behavior. For example, if you demand that a young one sit still for too long, you will both end up miserable. If your child repeatedly resists something, take a week off. New skills can take a long, long time to master. So, go easy on yourself and your children—learning is hard.
Get adults on the same page. Partners must support each other’s rules, or they will feel resentful and their children will be confused. Find the sweet spot where the adults truly buy-in and can easily model the same desired behavior.
Invite the children. To maximize the chances of cooperation, invite your kids on board. Simply give a playful heads-up that you’re going to teach some table skills. Ask for their ideas too, in words or pictures. Family projects can be fun!
Practice: Try, Try Again. Repeat.
Be mentally prepared to repeat everything – a lot. A lot, a lot. This may annoy you, but it is totally normal. To help ease the way, use these methods every time you practice:
Behave the way you want your children to behave. This is hands-down the best way to teach manners, because your children deeply want to be like you. If you want to hear “please” and “thank you,” make sure you say them…always. Are toys at the table distracting? Model by stowing your toys during mealtime: phone, computer, book, etc. (Heads-up: this one is the hardest for most parents.)
Use a gentle tone for reminders. Studies show that humans communicate most meaning through tone, not words. So, keep reminders simple and your tone playful, as in, “Whoa! Dinosaur manners! Eek!” If playful isn’t your style, try a gentle, “Oops. Can you please put your napkin in your lap? Thanks.”
Remove pressure. Practice at a time other than mealtime. Invite your trainees and some stuffed animals for snacks and practice “dinner.” Teach only one new manner at a time, to keep things manageable. Focus on progress not perfection.
Perform: Show What You Know
After some practice, offer your children a playful chance to perform their new skills—without expectations of perfection. Please note: these ideas aren’t meant as a bribe for good manners and shouldn’t be withheld for punishment. You and your little ones have worked hard and that’s that. It’s time to celebrate your efforts!
Go Out to Eat. Choose a casual restaurant at an off-peak time. Tell your server you are celebrating your hard work. Clink glasses and say, “Cheers to us!”
Invite Others In. Ask an adult to come over for a snack. Prep your guest to comment specifically on the children’s manners. Openly say how proud you are.
Fancy Feast. Dress up your table with flowers and LED “candles” for a snack or meal. Praise your children for their hard work. Ask how they feel about manners.
Laine Lipsky is a parent coach with a Master’s degree in Teaching from Brown University. Laine has two children, 8 and 10, both of whom usually remember to put their napkins on their laps.