|Written by Pat Blackwell, PhD|
peas and q’s
Why mealtime manners should be modeled early and often.
Mealtimes are important for many reasons beyond nutrition. Around the table, children learn about themselves, family, and culture. Table etiquette is an aspect of culture and individual family standards. Parents should decide what they will expect from their children and teach this early on.
Before a baby can master table manners, however, he must learn some preliminary skills, including independent feeding and communication. Babies must also have a template for “mealtime customs.” It is the parent’s job to create learning opportunities and have appropriate, consistent expectations regarding their infant’s behavior. Then they must directly model manners.
Let the Learning Begin
Starting in late infancy, parents can begin to teach their baby independence by encouraging self feeding (with help) and opportunities to refine these skills. When your baby is able to self feed, it’s best to serve a small number of finger foods and a bit of food in a bowl with a spoon. Then stand back and let the infant practice at least part of the meal. Yes, this makes a mess; take a deep breath and look away if necessary. (A shower curtain under the high chair is a great “crumb catcher.”) Obviously babies need more help than toddlers; you should also consult your infant’s pediatrician for guidelines about readiness. And parents must beware of dangerous finger foods like grapes, nuts and hotdogs.
Along with self feeding comes communication. When a baby rejects food by turning away from the spoon, his or her parents may teach signs language or a signal that means “finished.” Conversely, an infant crying or reaching for more food can be taught the sign for “more.” This may not look like baby’s first lesson in table manners but it is. By serving a small portion of food and encouraging an organized means of rejecting food or requesting more, parents are teaching their child a “civilized” way to behave. Yes, food will still go south, but hopefully this will be more of an experiment with gravity than a means of communication.
Toddlers and young children learn from watching adults. It is not enough for parents to sit with their baby while she eats; they must eat some meals together. Meals should be happy times, but I recommend that parents set firm rules about meal time behavior. Obviously expectations about manners should be age-appropriate. And as with discipline in general, parents are advised to structure the environment to promote success. Turn off the T.V. to limit distraction and say NO to wandering during mealtimes. Let your child know that he doesn’t have to eat, and he may ask to be excused. If he is excused, the meal is over for him.
The days of formal etiquette are over. Today we live in a causal and more kid-friendly world. It’s not unusual to see a toddler at a cocktail party or fancy restaurant. Just because social convention now allows children to go just about everywhere does not mean they will suddenly be able to behave appropriately in these settings. It is not fair of us to expect such. Parents of young children are advised to stick to kid friendly restaurants and casual get-togethers. (Editor’s note: check out our family-friendly dining guide at our website! )
Parents should also expect their child to act in public the way they do at home. If children run around the dinner table at home they will do so in public. Remember manners as with all childhood skills take time to mature. With parental guidance and practice, your child will learn to be a pleasant dinner partner. Give him time and enjoy mealtimes together, even if they are a bit uncivilized at times.