How can I teach my restless son table manners? On Babble.com’s Parental Advisory.

My son has just graduated from the high chair and we’re trying to encourage him to sit at the table with us and eat with a fork. So far we’ve had some struggles. He gets distracted, uses his hands, runs away, throws food. We’re not looking for perfect formal dining behavior, but when is it reasonable to expect him to sit at the table and eat like a regular person? – Manners, Please!

Dear Manners, Please!,

Sadly for the peace of your dining experience, your son is acting like a regular person: a person who, guessing from the size of most high chairs, can’t be more than two and a half. When a kid is just learning how to eat, the focus is on getting him to eat, using whatever means necessary. Adding layers of decorum onto that is a complex affair. You’re asking your son to suppress what comes naturally (using his very effective five-finger utensils, fidgeting, playing) and assume a whole other system. Manners are a very interesting piece of the parenting socialization project. What makes dining etiquette different from preventing biting or kicking or grabbing toys is that bad table manners don’t exactly “hurt.” They offend people’s sensibilities, not their bodies, or even feelings. Getting a two-year-old to comprehend this idea is pretty much a hopeless cause. Luckily, most children don’t require an in-depth understanding of why they’re asked to behave a certain way in order to learn the behavior. Teaching a kid how to act at the table requires some of the same things as teaching him how to act on the playground: practice (for him), and patience (for you).

Most young children cannot learn a behavior just by being told once or twice. It often takes a period of steady reminders for a child to even be able to reliably mimic the behavior. If you’re looking for him to initiate it regularly, it can take much longer. We can certainly relate to the frustration of telling a kid something endless times and seeing little sign of his comprehension. But usually, it does eventually sink in. It might take weeks, it might take years. In the meantime, you might try a little repetition on yourself: These things take time!

Usually, anyway. Some kids do seem to have miraculously perfect table behavior, even from the start. The parents of these children may attribute their kids’ manners to the way they introduced solids, or their steadfast family dinner routine, or their fearless restaurant trawls from infancy. We know. We’ve been these parents, glowing with pride over a toddler’s ability to sit steadily through a four-course meal. And we can now say with authority that even children with remarkable manners are apt to lapse, be it due to a bad mood or a developmental need to push boundaries.

Which brings us to the practical part of our response. Here are some things you can try to encourage a pleasant mealtime experience:

Make sure your child understands how he’s expected to behave. A big factor in this is your own manners. If you don’t want your child to eat with his hands, you shouldn’t either. And if you’re eating finger food, explain how and why this food can be eaten without a fork. The way you act is at least as important as what you say.

If your kid is already cranky, tired, sick, super-starving, in a particularly acting-out phase, or any of the other myriad complicating factors that can exacerbate parent-kid interactions, you may want to go easy on the expectations. To that end, thoughtful meal design (timing, seating, menu) can help encourage optimal behavior.

Learn from experience. If there are ways you’ve tried to respond that have had negative effects, try something different next time. You may have more or less success with rewards, punishments, humor, rational explanation or games. Songs might work well with a young child; an older one might respond well to a positive/negative feedback scenario. Try to keep your eye on the goal and experiment with ways of communicating and teaching.

Table manners are a common area of regression. A child might eat like a baby because he wants to feel like one (or does) for any number of reasons. Keep a lookout for possible motivations; sometimes making your child feel more secure in other ways can help improve things like manners.

It’s hard to keep things light when you’re annoyed, but if you can keep the anger out of it, you’ll prevent your child from using bad manners just to piss you off. Learning manners is a long process, and you’re just at the very beginning. If you cut yourselves some slack, the process will be easier on both of you, and it might just go more smoothly as well.

Have a question? Email parentaladvisory@babble.com

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