Your child’s leadership skills begin at the family dinner table. In this day of working moms and fast food eating, sitting down together for dinner is sometimes neglected. However, it is often the foundation of family life and should become a treasured tradition.
The dining table functions like a corporate meeting, it is where the parents set the family agenda and model both the attitudes and traditional modes of behavior and decorum. They set the example of pleasing conversation, showing an interest in what the family is doing and experiencing, and see that everyone knows proper table manners.
When you child is very young, still in a high chair, meals may be quite chaotic. Messes are made, food may be thrown, and you may wonder if you will ever get through it.
So, the challenge is: keep your cool and your voice down. Many of us react to our child’s gross behavior by shouting at them, and if I ever meet a parent who has never shouted at his child, I will submit his name to the Vatican for canonization! However, we need to set a goal for ourselves to keep control of our reactions. After all we are modeling leadership and if we are shouting and adding to the chaos we will find that this is what our kids are learning from us.
Consistent, firm correction works very well. Save the yelling for a dangerous situation which warrants the emotion. Never forget the fact that you, the parent are the leader of your family, the decision maker, and that your kids don’t run the show.
Goals at the table change as your children age. The one goal that should apply throughout their lifetime is that the table is a place for tranquility, relaxation, but also a place for lively conversation. As this is the family gathering place, it can be used as a forum for discussion, the imparting of family values, the building of character, and the learning of ordinary day to day behaviors.
What can you do to set the tone for a gracious meal?
1. Have everyone wash his hands (and face too if needed) before coming to the table.
2. Instruct everyone to wait until every family member is present and then sit down together at the same time. You may want to have them stand behind their chairs till all are assembled.
3. Require proper dress at the table. No bare chests, underwear, or hats. Dressing in an appropriate manner is a sign of respect and is one of the building blocks of teaching your child to be respectful.
4. Begin to teach manners at a very early age. Please, thank you, and excuse me can be firmly in your child’s vocabulary by the age of three.
5. Little by little your child will be learning the table etiquette which you model. He probably won’t be able to handle his utensils very gracefully until around age 7 or 8, but you can suggest and quietly demonstrate what to do, and not get upset if he can’t do it properly. His motor skills may not be developed to the level of your expectations, so just know that time and maturation will cure the problem.
6. Have a definite plan for teaching table manners, but keep it low key. There is nothing more disruptive to a happy meal than a parent fussing at a kid for every little thing they are doing incorrectly. To prevent this, decide that you will model a certain proper eating technique on a certain day of the week, or every other week. You might want to call this “MANNERS NIGHT” and everyone will know that they are going to have specific training on “manners night”.
7. There is a very subtle way to correct an unacceptable behavior without having to actually confront and embarrass the wrong doer. This technique will work if you have more than two people at the table. Let’s say that Jenny is sitting there running her hands through her hair and twisting it. If you have already taught Jenny to keep her hands in her lap when she is not using a utensil , all you need to do is ask someone else at the table, “Dad, would you please review for us what we do with our hands when we are not eating?” If Dad indicates that we keep our hands in our lap, Jenny’s hand will probably be seen descending to her lap. If she doesn’t hear Dad because she is daydreaming, a gentle but direct approach may be necessary. Again, we are modeling respect for the feeling of others. This indirect method of correction is very effective when several people are present and know the “rules”.
8. Foster interesting conversation. Suggest that the children think of things and make a list of things they would like to talk about when you meet together at the table. If the family is sharing the fun of reading a book together you might even want to read aloud at the end of the meal for the length of a chapter. We tried this with James Hariots’s “All Creature Great and Small”, and the family not only enjoyed the book, but found much to think and talk about. Make the table a fun and interesting place to be.
Edith King Vosefski, a. k. a. "The Etiquette Lady" is Director of the Etiquette School of Northern Illinois. She helps individuals and corporations to understand the protocols and social skills they need in order to achieve the personal and financil success they desire.
Edith was educated at Northwestern University with a B. S.in communication. After graduating from N. U. , she married and raised two sons. She later returned to school, earned a master's degree, and spent many years teaching in both public and private schools.
Edith has a passion for good manners, knowing how to present yourself for any occasion, and effective speaking. As a result of this passion it was only natural that she would become the founder of an etiquette school. She took additional training for teaching etiquette at The American School of Protocol.
In addition to her skills of teaching, and public speaking Edith writes a monthly column for the Liberty Press, “Hats Off To Etiquette", and has published two books on children's etiquette.