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We shouldn't save our best manners for the outside world--surely the people with whom we live deserve our best efforts.
Whether you or your family's at-home table manners need a small tune-up or a major overhaul, the process need not be unpleasant. Many adults today tell of childhood memories of being poked in the arm with a fork when their elbows were on the table and being knuckled in the back when they were slouching; of being forced to sit at the table by the hour until every single Brussels sprout was eaten; or of being sent to their rooms for directing rude splatting noises at their brother in the middle of dinner. While their lessons were learned, they can be learned just as easily with gentle reminders and with simple communication. More often than not, there are very good reasons for rules of behavior, which, once understood, make sense and are not hard to remember.
When your concern is teaching table manners, keep in mind that standards should be age-appropriate. A young child, the moment he begins chewing, can understand that this should be done with the mouth closed. He has difficulty keeping his elbows at his side when he is cutting his food, however, because small motor skills take a while to develop. When you remember to make allowances for skill development and understanding, it is not difficult to make good table manners lifelong habits. It is easier when the environment is attractive, when the menu is pleasing, and when the company iscongenial--the same ingredients for any dinner party you would have for guests.
Make your own standard one that is dedicated to setting a pretty table. It doesn't take that much more time to use place mats, to fold napkins, and to set attractive places for family meals.
If children are assigned the chore of setting the table, you can even encourage them to think of centerpieces, choose background music, and find a long-forgotten dish for the pickles.
Make an extra effort for holidays, whether they be Christmas or Passover feasts or those you make special just for fun, like a celebration of Groundhog Day or Peter Rabbit's birthday. Again, involve children in thinking of ways to make the table especially festive. If a twelve-year-old has finished her homework and is restlessly awaiting dinner, have her cut and fold paper to make place cards. Even if everyone always sits in the same chair for dinner, it is fun to have this addition to the table once in a while and it introduces the concept, opening you to talk about places you have been where place cards were used and how they were used.
A big part of the environment is the room you eat in. If you have a dining room, use it once in a while; don't always eat in the kitchen. If the kitchen is your primary dining spot, then be sure counters aren't heaped with pots and pans and dirty dishes. Make the space around the table inviting, too.
Equally as important, the environment should allow you to focus on one another. Only once in a great while should the television be on. Only when something is terribly urgent should protracted telephone calls be allowed.
One young family I know uses dinner time to introduce a variety of classical music as a background to conversation. Practically by osmosis, the children learn to identify major themes and composers, and often the music itself presents a conversational topic. Involving children in choosing music is another way to lead them to a full participation in the dinner hour. If your music collection is wide, help them choose something fitting: the Hungarian Rhapsodies when you are having Hungarian stew; Italian mountain songs when you are serving lasagna; a romantic medley on Valentine's Day.
A dinner menu will seldom please all of the people all of the time. With children it's a topic that lends itself to a great deal of "hate" venting, as in, "I hate peas!" and "I hate meat!" If you are the only one thinking up menu ideas night after night, these comments are as frustrating as they are rude. It is tiring to work hard to feed your family creatively and well only to have one family member or another sound off every night.
An end run around this problem is to assign menu planning to others every now and then. Periodically ask your spouse and your children or the primary complainer to come up with a week's worth of dinner menus. With the children, review the menus for balance and nutrition. Explain why mashed potatoes and spaghetti at one dinner doesn't work. When youngsters learn it is not easy to plan a satisfactory menu they will develop an appreciation of your efforts, and will be less critical. When dinner is just something that appears on the table, very little thought is given to how it got there and why. Giving in to their special requests occasionally also makes them feel more involved in the process and gives them a greater interest in the meals. When one has actually worked to plan what that dinner is, a new appreciation dawns.
Creating a warm and inviting environment for family mealtime helps ensure that you have at least one time and place a day to focus on one another, to share feelings, ideas and thoughts and to do something as a unit. Sharing a meal is just the beginning. The rest of it is helping everyone at the table to remember the manners of consideration. The dinner table is often the place where children learn about taking turns to talk and where, with everyone gathered, they can share their greatest triumphs of the day, as well as their anxieties and problems. It should be a place of praise, laughter and happiness. It should never be a place of tension and anger.
My rule has always been that fights, grudges, disagreements and anger do not sit at my table. It is literally unhealthy; chronic stomach problems are often traced to the dinner table. When tension reigns, digestion suffers. More than that, it is unfair to the cook, unkind to others, basically selfish and certainly unpleasant.
Even if dinner has to be delayed a half-hour to resolve conflict so that it doesn't come to the table, it is worth it. Using dinner time to be unpleasant can become a habit just as quickly as talking with a full mouth.
If dinner table conversation is nonexistent or mumbled between mouthfuls, it is time to change your family's ways. Begin by asking questions that cannot be answered "fine," "yes" or "no." Don't ask, "Did you have a good day in school?" Ask instead, "What are you studying in science right now?" Then ask a few questions about that topic. Ask, "What was the best thing that happened to you today?" and then ask why. Don't ask, "How was lunch today with Larry?" Say instead, "What is the Black Bass Grill like?" or "What did you like best about the restaurant?" This is not to assume that your only role is to quiz the family. You should be prepared to share a story as well, preferably one of interest to most of the people at the table.
Try to encourage a discussion of something that is happening in the world; talk about an editorial in the newspaper and ask everyone else what his or her opinion is. Create a "word of the week" game and assign each person the responsibility for finding a word, looking it up and teaching it to everyone else. Then have each person use the word in a sentence during dinner throughout the week.
Buy a book on the derivation of phrases or sayings and every so often ask someone to find a really interesting one and teach the others all about it. For example, in keeping with the dinner-table theme, you could describe why we drink a "toast" to someone. And so you can try this out tonight, here's why.
The custom of drinking a toast to the good health of another began in ancient times. In the days of Shakespeare, a piece of toasted bread was put in the tankard before wine or ale was poured into it. This toast allegedly improved the taste; it also collected any sediment and impurities at the bottom of the tankard. The drink, therefore, became a toast. The health part comes next. A little of the wine or ale was poured into the host's glass and then into the guest's glass from the same pitcher before anyone drank, just in case one or the other had poison on the mind. Since both would drink from the same source, it was a pretty sure bet that there was no poison--after all, who would look to poison himself! Before drinking, the two, or the group, would clink tankards and say, "To your good health," which they could say with some certainty, having passed the poison test.
The truth is that most children want to know how to do things properly. They dread embarrassment, wither at the thought of seeming foolish or ignorant and feel very good about themselves, indeed, when they know how to do something the right way. As long as you don't make the teaching of basic dining guidelines rigid and grim, the entire process can be fun for everyone. And don't forget to explain why things are done certain ways. Knowing why makes remembering easier, and children are literal and logical so if something makes sense they'll make it their own.Emily Post's Advice for Every Dining Occasion. Copyright � by Elizabeth Post. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.