a peek inside the fishbowl

06 Sep, 2012

Guest post: Missing manners

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Guest postings

I believe that the job of a parent is to prepare kids for life and make good citizens out of them.

During a recent dinner we helpfully pointed out to one of our daughters that she was holding her fork incorrectly. Her answer was pretty predictable. “WHO CARES if I’m holding my fork wrong,” she moaned.

Well, I care. There are table manners that obviously fall under the category of “Very Bad.” Food falling out of your mouth, for example, or picking your nose at the table. But I wasn’t able to explain why holding your fork is so important. I’m still struggling to come up with a better answer than “because it is.”

As I sit here and think about it I’ve come to the conclusion that table manners are important (as well as knowing how to use cutlery) because People Will Judge. Always. And even though we tell our kids never to judge a book by its cover, we also tell them the very opposite. For example we tell our children to stay safe and steer clear from creepy-looking people downtown. That’s judging, right?

So yes, we are judged every day, and we judge, even though we often proclaim ourselves to have risen above the judgyness.

Someday our children will be grown up, and they might find themselves at a business luncheon with a potential employer. If they shovel food in their mouths and wipe their gravy-stained fingers on the tablecloth and top it off with a loud belch they aren’t likely to get the job, are they? t’s important to Make a Good Impression and Look Classy. And this is where manners come into play. Manners are the same as good behaviour.

Cecilia Pita is a very nice lady who hired me way back for a photo shoot, and she happens to be an expert in the area of etiquette. Her business is called Savoir Faire.  In a recent email she mentioned that etiquette is not about being stuffy, it’s about how we treat one another. And this is an idea that I liked very much. I thought it would be cool if she posted something here about kids and table manners, and maybe got a discussion going about it. I think it’s a topic that’s worthy of being explored, so please read on!

Do you cringe at the thought of taking your kids out for dinner? Do you stay in just to avoid the drama? Well, you’re not alone. Over the years, I’ve had many well-intentioned parents share their table manners woes with me: They don’t listen. We try, but they don’t get it. We’re always nagging. There’s just no time!

If you break it down in graphic terms, eating involves piercing food with a metal tool, hoisting it to your mouth, chomping it to a pulp and gulping it down. This can be quite an unappetizing experience to witness if it’s not done with a little savoir-faire! But, we’ve all got to eat and eventually we’re going to have to (gasp) eat in front of other people.

And, while you may not always know which fork to use, slurping your soup or wolfing down your food before everyone else is served is bound to generate some incredulous looks, no matter how old you are.

But, kids will be kids at the table, right? Um, says who? If we want our children to show confidence, respect, and consideration for their fellow meal mates and be able to take them out to dinner, we’ve got to fill their proverbial toolbox with the necessary tools. Table manners is one of those tools. Quite honestly, we’re doing our children a disservice if we think they’ll learn table manners through some miracle of osmosis, that it will happen “eventually” or that a simple reminder before an important outing is enough.

So, how do we teach our little ones the rules? Simple. By modelling, practicing and explaining the behaviour we would like to see and having a persistent, patient and positive attitude.

Here are five tips I use to teach my family table manners. I’ve even thrown in some dos and don’ts for good measure!

1. Plan a weekly family meal. If you can squeeze in at least one meal at the table, you’re setting the stage. (Relax. You don’t need a 6-course meal. Pizza will do!)

2. Ask your little ones to help set the table. (Idea: Make paper place mats and draw out a place setting. Then ask them to put the “pieces” where they belong. Depending on their age and for safety’s sake, you may want to start with just the napkin.)

3. Model the rules; your children are watching you.

  • “Please pass the bread…Thank you.”
  • Do swallow before speaking.
  • Do gently pierce, not stab, food with the fork.
  • Do keep anything that isn’t part of the eating ritual off the table. (Yes, that includes electronic devices. Feel free to turn them off too!)
  • Do say “May I be excused?” or “Excuse me.”

4. Explain yourself.

  • “I’m turning off my cell phone because it would be rude to take a call in the middle of our conversation.”
  • “See how I waited until I had swallowed before answering your question? No one needs to see my chewed up food in my mouth and I don’t want to accidentally spray the table with food bits.”

5. Praise when appropriate.

  • “Thank you for excusing yourself from the table.”
  • “I’m so proud of how you handled that pie! You were quite the pro with the fork!”
  • “You were very patient while we waited to be served. I know it seemed like forever, but we all appreciated it.”

We may not be born “knowing” the rules of the table, but I’m confident we all have the ability to raise little ladies and gentlemen. Need a little help? I’m happy to oblige.

Thank you for your words of wisdom Cecilia! If you’re a parent, I’d love to know how you tackle table manners at your house. Or am I the only one who pesters my kids about how they hold their forks? :)

13 Responses to "Guest post: Missing manners"

1 | Annie @ PhD in Parenting

September 6th, 2012 at 8:45 am


I’m curious how your daughter was holding her fork. In a fist (which would be wrong everywhere, I think)? Or in the wrong hand?

This is an interesting conversational piece / modeling thing at our house because Europeans use their fork differently than North Americans. So “wrong” isn’t as easily defined and the range of “right” is much broader.

2 | andrea

September 6th, 2012 at 9:00 am


You raise an excellent point Annie, and that manners are totally culture-based. In Asian countries, hoisting your bowl to your mouth and pushing the food in with chopsticks is perfectly acceptable, but it isn’t a widely understood or admired practice in our circle.

And our daughter was holding the fork in her fist.

3 | andrea

September 6th, 2012 at 9:01 am


Here’s an informative post (with photos) re: how to hold a knife and fork: http://www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Fork-and-Knife-Properly


4 | Jayda

September 6th, 2012 at 9:05 am


Our children are still pretty young so we have always taken the ‘modeling’ approach to most social behaviours. So far, this approach has worked very well for us. They say their please and thank you’s without prompting or very minimal prompting. Table manners are something we have recently put more effort into, as they get older. Subtle, gentle reminders seem to be working for now. I am happy to see that the above tips are all things we are doing or plan to do. A parenting check mark;)

5 | Laura

September 6th, 2012 at 9:16 am


I love this post! There are so many learning/sharing opportunities when you eat together as a family. Teaching children how to set a table, use their cutlery and sit through a meal without having to make use of electronics because they are “bored” are all important life lessons. If only I could teach my 7 year old how to chew gum without driving me insane!

6 | Giulia

September 6th, 2012 at 10:08 am


Ha! My pet peeve, adults that don’t have table manners! This was a huge thing when I was growing up – and with a European dad and a NA mom, we had some interesting conversations ;) My dad really didn’t like us having our free hand on our knees = ‘you are not in the Wild West, holding a gun at your opponent under the table’ he would say.
Our daughter knows, never to lick a knife, not to speak with her mouth full and not to ‘stab’ her food. She is 5, my son is 3, so there is still a lot to learn, especially as the little guy still uses his hands as cutlery helpers. They always ask if they may leave the table and we NEVER have the phone or other electronic gadgets at the table.
I know that it will be important to us to teach our children proper table etiquette, it’s part of life and shows respect to the people around you., i.e. not elbowing the person next to you while eating ;)

7 | Annie @ PhD in Parenting

September 6th, 2012 at 10:26 am


It is point #7/8 in particular in that wikihow piece that the Europeans would most disagree with. It is completely acceptable and encouraged to use your knife to help put things onto the back side of your fork. Switching your fork to the other hand and using it like a shovel, on the other hand, is rude and inappropriate.

8 | Hulya Bayras

September 6th, 2012 at 11:44 am


I love this post! I love worthy reading materials. Whether you are parents or not you should share this information with someone you know that it will benefit.

Well done Missfish!

9 | Misty Pratt

September 6th, 2012 at 12:51 pm


We’re really big on the “excuse me, thank you for dinner” thing here. We’re still working on holding our fork properly and eating with our mouth shut….but given that she’s only 3, I think this is to be expected.

However, I do sometimes talk about the difference between the manners we use at home and those we use in public. For example, at home, I’m perfectly happy to put my elbow on the table. But when I’m out in public, it’s something I consciously avoid doing. Also, at home, we all eat with our hands/fingers sometimes, but it’s something I wouldn’t do in public (unless, of course, it was something that absolutely required being picked up)

I think kids are smart enough to learn the difference between a more relaxed atmosphere at home and a formal atmosphere in a restaurant or dinner party

10 | Javamom

September 6th, 2012 at 2:46 pm


It may be wise to include the other parent at the table to participate in the manner-reminding conversation. I find myself the lone one who notices inappropriate table manners and the lone voice mentioning it. The other parent is as tired as I am but when he can focus solely on his plate in front of him and the children hear only one voice telling (which they interpret as nagging) them how to hold a fork, how to sit properly with knees down, how to wipe the dripping gravy from their chin, then the educational aspect is lost on them. It’s not that I personally don’t get his support once the statement is made, quite the contrary. He will back me up immediately. But, it always seems like I’m the one that has to start the talk. It makes me look like the bad guy who is ruining dinner with ‘talk’ the children would much rather not hear.

DH and I model manners/behaviour. I have a European upbringing from Europe (Switzerland) and he has one of a second generation (in Canada by emigrated parents from Latvia). There are so many acceptable and unacceptable manners one could address but if only one or two would be focused on by both of us until habit becomes natural, it would make such a difference. Someone mentioned elbows – my grandfather did not tolerate elbows at the table. I find it a comfortable way to sit, particularly when I am tired, and do not focus on that. Speaking with mouth full…that’s pretty standard across most countries I’m familiar with. Don’t do it, at home or at a restaurant…but does it have to be mentioned only by me? Am I the only one who is irritated by it?

It’s frustrating, yet so important, for all the reasons mentioned in this post. Thank you for that.

11 | Cecilia

September 6th, 2012 at 7:07 pm


Wow! What a great response! Thank you all for your comments and insight!

If I may comment a little wearing the “expert” hat…

Yes, there are definitely cultural differences when it comes to table manners. There are even styles of eating (American, Continental and Asian). The Continental is what some consider “European”. The main difference between American and Continental is that in American style people cut their food with the fork in the left hand and then place it in their right hand to bring it to their mouth. Whereas in Continental Style, a person would simply keep the fork in their left hand and bring it to the mouth.

Parents: Keep doing what your doing–modeling, being patient and using any and every teaching opportunity life throws your way. In doing so, you won’t worry whenever your child is a guest in someone else’s home, or at a special event.

Now, if I may comment, wearing the “head of household” hat…

Imagine living with the manners police. Right. So, I try really hard to use positive phrasing whenever possible so that I don’t come off sounding like a nag. It can be frustrating to have to repeat things but it’s like anything else. Sooner or later, it will become a habit. And when something is done right without prompting, the pride is overwhelming.

Table manners is an investment that pays dividends and I’m so happy to hear that so many see its value.

Thank you :)

12 | Cecilia

September 6th, 2012 at 7:32 pm


I almost forgot!

If you’re looking to read more on the topic of dining etiquette, I invite you to visit my website and sign up for my (occasional) newsletter so that you can download my little ebook on business dining.


Thanks again!

13 | Sara

September 9th, 2012 at 1:56 pm


We’re in a bit of a different place but I work so hard at every meal to bring civility to the table. Current rules are:
1. No food fights/throwing food
2. Use utensils
3. No eating off the table (must be bowl or plate)
4. No yelling ‘I hate this!!’ but using nicer words like ‘this isn’t my favourite’

(crawls back into my cave)

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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