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Old Fashioned Table Manners For Kids

Updated on June 24, 2012
Our youngest son, very comfortable during a formal New Year's Eve dinner.  He asked to try the salmon tartar served to the adults.
Our youngest son, very comfortable during a formal New Year's Eve dinner. He asked to try the salmon tartar served to the adults. | Source
Our middle son, feeling confident as he reaches to cheers with me during New Year's Eve dinner.
Our middle son, feeling confident as he reaches to cheers with me during New Year's Eve dinner. | Source
Our oldest son, enjoying a fancy dinner for New Year's Eve despite the collared shirt and cloth napkin.
Our oldest son, enjoying a fancy dinner for New Year's Eve despite the collared shirt and cloth napkin. | Source

Not everything old fashioned is necessarily the best, but when it comes to table manners, I believe generations before us left some remarkable advice. I have always joked that my parents raised me well enough to have dinner with the Queen. And although the bar was set high for me as a little girl, I appreciate their commitment and their work. It feels to me a bit like the argument made in favor of being overdressed rather than underdressed for a party. When it comes to manners, I am glad I can turn it on when I need to.

Let me introduce myself: I am German and was raised by German parents. And, by default, according to old fashioned German values and manners. My parents were strict and had high expectations for specific behaviors which were appropriate for us as children. At least to the outside world, my sisters and I became well trained to know what was acceptable and what was absolutely not. And, while the process was not always fun, I am very thankful today. I feel comfortable in formal dinner settings and can make a (mostly) good impression.

Why Are Table Manners Important?

It seems I spend a lot of my time as a parent now trying to teach proper table manners to my three boys. They are the product of a German-American couple and therefore, a wonderful mixture of customs and values from birth. We agree that our ultimate hope for our children is that they grow up to be well mannered, respectful and confident adults.

Regardless of cultural background, my husband and I strongly believe that manners speak volumes when it comes to social consciousness and interactions. But as with most things in life, we also believe that moderation is obviously key. Moderation in a world that is quickly changing in front of our eyes, and where the balance of what was considered proper in the past and believed to be proper in the present often gets blurry.

Holding on to Old Manners and Trying Out New Manners

My own mother often still speaks about having dinner with her family and the fact was that she was not allowed to speak at the table unless she was spoken to. This is definitely not only outdated but also contrary to raising confident, involved children in today's world. Dinner is the one time of day when we are able to connect as a family and share bits and pieces about our day. I believe that we have to absolutely eat together and talk with each other to stay properly connected in our digital age.

But expecting our children to finish the food on their plate as I had to do growing up, is often a point of contention. I believe this seemingly old fashioned custom still warrants support today and I will gladly explain how and why.

As a child, my Mom brought all of the food in beautiful dishes to the table and we were allowed to plate it ourselves. This allowed us to control the amount of our servings when there was something we did not like which was placed in front of us. We were responsible, however, to try everything our Mom cooked for dinner. Not always fun, but never torture. I credit my love for all foods to my upbringing.

Today, I don't exactly know why, I seem to operate in almost the polar opposite fashion. I often find myself cooking food that is more kid than adult friendly to avoid the customary 'battle'. And, rather than asking my children to serve themselves, I bring their full plates to the table and ask them to finish as much as they can.

Maybe I am mindful of the extra dishes that need to be washed, maybe I feel in too big of a rush to get everything from stove to table when our days seem so busy. But in the end, I am neither happy with the eating habits my kids are developing nor the manners I am role modeling at the table.

Old Fashioned Table Manners for Kids

My boys love it when we have a picnic dinner, meaning we spread out a blanket in our family room and watch TV while eating our meal. I remember being a little girl and having that same privilege, but only on nights when my Dad was away on business and it was just my Mom and us three girls. We all understood well that it was a privilege, and that privileges needed to be earned. Earned by proper behavior, behaving with my parents' work foremost in our minds.

Some manners clearly needed softening from the days of silence around the dinner table, but I believe others should continue to guide us as they were well into the future. The following is a sampling of table manners that I consider to be as relevant today as they were in days past.

  1. Regular meals at the table: I am very protective of our family meals as they seem to roll around less and less frequently. I am talking specifically about all five of us eating together. As is the case with most families, my husband is usually off to work before the kids are ready to eat, and home well after dinner has been served.
  2. No reading at the table: We have a tradition in our family that during every dinner, we take turns reporting on the news of the day. Even our littlest one is eager to get the silence and attention of all others. Reading the newspaper or the back of a cereal box (mostly during breakfast) still makes me cringe.
  3. "May you please pass the...": Never reach across the table to get what you want, even if it feels within arm's reach. As soon as you cross the plane of the person next to you with your hand, you have reached too far.
  4. Begin eating only when everyone has been served: This seems basic, but with young children at the table who have varying appetites and sense of control, it can be hard to wait. We try our best to start together so as to maximize our time around the table together.
  5. Never cut up all your food at once: In fact, cut only one bite at a time and what you will be able to put into your mouth at once. Precutting all your food and placing your knife down for the rest of the meal is not polite. Also, with every bite, it is proper to turn the fork face down to cut and face up to bring the food to your mouth.
  6. Do not use your fingers to eat: I do not recall growing up with finger foods, but I know that using utensils is still a learned skill. It seems like I am reminding my kids daily to use their fork or spoon (never mind not using their shirt as a napkin).
  7. When finished, place your silverware side-by-side on your plate: If done properly, your silverware should rest at the three o'clock position on your plate when you are done. Face the knife with the serrated edge towards the fork (and the knife above the fork).
  8. Sit up straight: I was never allowed to lean back on my chair while eating. In fact, I was asked to lean in a little towards the table, with my head over my plate. Getting too comfortable was always followed with "if you are too tired to eat, it's time for bed". Those words made me shoot right back up.
  9. Never prop your head up on the table with your hand: This one is really more about the elbow not being welcome on the table than anything else. Ideally arms were meant to be resting on the table half way between the wrist and elbow.
  10. Bring your food to your mouth: And not your mouth to your food. This continues to be one of my main sticking points with my kids. Proper posture when eating is so important.
  11. Ask to be excused: This is as true during the meal (if nature happens to call) as it is at the end of the meal. Eating together is an activity that deserves as much respect and time as any other.
  12. Push your chair in when you are leaving the table: Often times the kids have their hands full as they bring their plates and cups to the sink. I feel that returning to the table to push their chairs in is an important gesture. I have seen the kids do it school, so why not at home?
  13. Only take what you can eat: A fair expectation when it comes time to finish your meal. You can always take more later and serves as a good lesson in portion control.


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    • kissmom9318 profile image

      kissmom9318 5 years ago from Michigan

      Your list reminded me of how dinner was with my grandparents. How easily we forget even the simplest of manners and slip into bad ones. It is a nice reminder of the example I want to set for my children.

    • Pinkchic18 profile image

      Sarah Carlsley 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Wonderful, wonderful hub! We hold these true at our house, and for our children at other people's homes. They must ask the host to be excused when they are done. Great hub to share.

    • buckleupdorothy profile image

      buckleupdorothy 5 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      What a great list you've put together - it reminds me of my own childhood, and like you, I've come to really appreciate the effort my parents went to to make good table manners (and manner in general) completely second nature to me and my brother.