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In Defense of Table Manners for Kids

Messy baby

Using utensil doesn't necessarily mean a mess will be avoided

My 2-year-old daughter routinely comes up to the table when my husband and I are eating and takes the napkin off my lap.

“Nap’in,” she says matter-of-factly, and promptly walks over to the coffee table and wipes it down.

Whenever she sits down to eat, she insists on her clutching her own napkin, plus a fork and spoon, which she uses nearly interchangeably and indiscriminately. It takes her minutes to stab each pea with her fork, and only seconds to realize that the spoon is the better utensil with her Jell-O. Either way, in both cases, her fingers are not an option when deciding how to best leverage the food into her stomach.

The only thing she eats with her hands is peanut butter and jelly. She peels the bread apart and sponges up the spreads with her fingertips and then licks them off. When she’s poked the bread dry, she might pick it up and nibble a few bites, but at that point, she’s hip to the fact that the good stuff is long gone.

She requests apples, but only if she can eat them with a fork. Take away the utensil, be prepared for a tantrum. I, too, think it’s cute when she eats with her hands, but it’s a fate worst than death (to her) if her hands are dirty. I always ensure a napkin is within her reach, because if one isn’t, she’ll use one of my limbs or an article of my clothing as a substitute.

I have no idea from whence her inner Hazel comes, because we didn’t teach it. And believe me, I’m not bragging about my daughter’s early onset OCD. I wish I could say it means she doesn’t make a mess, but there is tomato sauce tattooed into the fibers of my kitchen. Yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it secretly pleases me that she seems to care about things like napkins and utensils since I’ve always been a big fan of table manners, and it’s one of those things I notice, especially when another adult doesn’t seem to have them. I certainly don’t expect other 2-year-olds to act like mine. I don’t even expect my 2-year-old to act the way she does. But I take no credit or blame.

Eight-year-olds, on the other hand? Yes, I kind of do expect them to have some manners — maybe not so much putting napkins on their laps, but at least to the extent that they use utensils and refrain from cupping their chins with their elbows parked on the table. My expectations for children are generally low —mine included — but I nevertheless feel like table manners should be commensurate with age.

Table manners are just one of those little things that, I believe, keep the fabric of what’s left of a civilized society together. Some of the rules are admittedly archaic, but I think most are benign and easy enough to teach, learn and practice regularly.

My dad still has some old-fashioned expectations, too, like wearing a hat indoors is taboo. I roll my eyes whenever he nudges me to point out the sin being committed. But I suppose I’m not much better when I’m out to eat and silently get annoyed when some start eating before others are served (unless it’s hot food and the people waiting urge you to start eating, yadda yadda yadda), or before the hostess dips her fork.

Maybe I missed my calling in life, although I suppose it’s never too late to apply to the Emily Post Institute. I think my daughter has the application lying around somewhere.

How important do you think table manners are for kids, and starting at what age?

Image: Meredith Carroll

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