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Table Manners for Children

Updated on February 14, 2013

To help our children (and some adults) to develop good table manners, we need to heed the writings of Giovanni della Casa (1503-1556) and Hans Sachs (1494-1576), two men who were forerunners to Miss Manners and Emily Post. These men expected their children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces to behave at the dinner table at all times. I, too, expect the best from my children whenever we sit down to eat. The following rules, though hundreds of years old, are still relevant today.

Giovanni della Casa's rules

Giovanni della Casa served as Pope Paul IV’s secretary of state. In Galeteo, he spelled out the rules for a young nephew:

  • Your conduct should not be governed by your own fancy, but in consideration of the feelings of those whose company you keep.
  • It is a repulsive habit to touch certain parts of the body in public, as some people do.
  • When you have blown your nose, you should not open your handkerchief and inspect it, as if pearls or rubies had dropped out of your skull.
  • It is not polite to scratch yourself when you are seated at table.
  • You should also take care, as far as you can, not to spit at mealtimes, but if you must spit, then do so in a decent manner.
  • It is bad manners to clean your teeth with your napkin, and still worse to do it with your finger.
  • It is wrong to rinse your mouth and spit out wine in public.
  • It is not a polite habit to carry your toothpick either in your mouth, like a bird making its nest, or behind your ear.
  • Anyone who makes a nasty noise with his lips as a sign of astonishment or disapproval is obviously imitating something indecent, and imitations are not far from the truth.

Hans Sachs' rules

Hans Sachs was a German poet, playwright, shoemaker, and father, who had many table rules for his children:

  • Wash your hands and cut your nails.
  • Do not sit at the head of the table; this is reserved for the father of the house.
  • Do not commence eating until a blessing has been said.
  • Permit the eldest to [eat] first.
  • Do not snort or smack like a pig.
  • Do not reach violently for bread lest you may knock over a glass.
  • Do not cut bread on your chest, or conceal pieces of bread or pastry under your hands.
  • Do not stir food around on your plate or linger over it.
  • Do not fill your spoon too full.
  • Rushing through your meal is bad manners.
  • Do not reach for more food while your mouth is still full nor talk with your mouth full.
  • Be moderate; do not fall upon your plate like an animal.
  • Be the last to cut your meat and break your fish.
  • Chew your food with your mouth closed.
  • Do not lick the corners of your mouth like a dog.
  • Do not hover greedily over your food.
  • Wipe your mouth before you drink, so that you do not grease up your wine.
  • Drink politely and avoid coughing into your cup.
  • Do not belch or cry out.
  • Do not stare at a person as if you were watching him eat.
  • Do not elbow the person sitting next to you.
  • Sit smartly, undisturbed, [and] humble.
  • Sit up straight.
  • Do not rock back and forth on the [seat] lest you let loose a stink.
  • Do not kick your feet under the table.
  • Guard yourself against all shameful words, gossip, ridicule, and laughter.
  • Never start a quarrel; quarreling at table is most despicable.
  • Say nothing that might offend another.
  • Do not pick your nose.
  • Never scratch your head.
  • Let no one wipe his mouth on the tablecloth, or lay his head in his hands.
  • Do lean back against the wall until the meal is finished.

The author's rules

Over the years, I have developed a list to help my children behave at the dinner table:

  • Do not push your vegetables with your fingers to your spoon or fork. Use bread or a roll to do the deed because no one wants to hold or shake hands with a child whose fingers are dripping with pea juice.
  • If you bite down on something vile or disagreeable, do not spit it out immediately onto your plate and make guttural, gagging noises. Discreetly remove the offensive morsel from your mouth using your napkin, and once it is safely wrapped in the napkin, do not unwrap and show it to the table at large.
  • Eating fried chicken with a fork is okay, but eating with your fingers is more acceptable, especially in the southern United States. If you use your fingers, lick them quietly, and wash your hands immediately when you are through. Do not “eat” or suck on your fingers because your fingers are not part of the official meal.
  • Do not sing the “Baked Beans” song (“Beans, beans, good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you …) while eating baked beans as it most likely will cause spontaneous flatulence.
  • If you are going to break wind, it is advisable to be downwind from and give warning to those closest to you. Simply coughing to mask a gaseous emission is not mannerly. Blaming your brother, the dog, your grandfather, or an invisible duck is also wrong.
  • Do not use your napkin to hide what you don’t intend to eat. Your parents are not that stupid.
  • Do not use your utensils, thumbs, fingers, knuckles, or hands to drum on the table or your feet to pound the floor. This is a time for eating, not mindlessly making noise.
  • If you must belch, do not smack your lips and then inform the table what the belch tasted like.
  • Cut your own meat. Your parents would like time to eat their meal, too.
  • Do not ever steal food from your parents’, siblings’, or relatives’ plates. Excuse yourself from the table to get your own seconds or ask someone to pass the plate or bowl to you.
  • Do not talk and eat at the same time. No one really enjoys “chew and show.”
  • If you think the entire meal is vile, do not push back from the table and say, “I have eaten better dog food.” At best, this might result in a cross look from the cook and an extended trip to your room. At worst, it may lead to a bowl of Alpo instead of cereal at your next breakfast.
  • Taste your food. The cook has sufficiently “killed it.” It is not alive and will not escape your plate.
  • Do not taunt the Jell-O or make it wiggle until it melts. This is the only way we can get you to eat mixed fruit.

Here is one final rule that I hope becomes part of your holiday traditions:

  • Do not leave the table until you are excused. A family meal is always about more than a meal.

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