Teach the child decent table manners, little by little. It takes time of course. Good behavior by adult measurements is difficult for the little ones. Young children do make a mess, and have a hard time sitting still.
It takes a lot of training for the child to learn to deal with cutlery, to be able to cut up bite-sized chewable pieces, to pour drinks… Just the part of not stuffing their mouths so full that it gets stuck in the throat and makes them choke, demands many reminders. Provide friendly helping hands when needed e.g. help cutting food into small pieces or hand the child tissue to wipe up the spill.
Teaching shouldn’t come at the expense of food comfort. Avoid making the meal itself into an upbringing situation, to the extent possible. A dinner full of stress and discomfort doesn’t make anyone happy. Try and make conversation with everyone. Be friendly. Be attentive to good behavior. Be happy about everything nice your kids say or do. Maybe whisper discretely when you need to remind it about something.
Take one thing at a time. You will do a lot just by setting a good example yourself, so try and be good mannered to your kids! Children mimic a lot. Be appreciative with every progress and gently tell, show and help with training what you seek.
Some things that, in time, should be sought and trained, out of respect for dinner guests or hosts:
– To wash your hands before and after (at least during the messier ages) meals.
– To use a napkin for smudges and spills around the plate and mouth. Preferably not the sleeves, although this is inevitable for the young ones.
– General politeness includes to generally sit peacefully on the chair, with feet down and head up (under the table eating scraps is not considered good manners, but strangely prefered among toddlers. Sometimes playing dog chewing toes.). To talk politely, using soft voice and acceptable language. To use cutlery, chop things up into mouthfuls and leave a reasonably clean plate.
-To have as many small helpings as they want, but eat up what’s on the plate. This requires helpful reminding, and quite a lot of exceptions when the child has been a bit too optimistic concerning its hunger.
– To say “thank you” for the food. It is nice to hear for those who prepared it.
– To ask for permission before leaving the table. It is a good idea to sit around for a short while, not to stress away too fast. It also tends to distract the siblings’ interest from food, if more interesting things seems to be going on in another place.
It is an ongoing process of course, where there is no demands on the babies (we help them with everything anyway), some regulations (like not throwing things about) on the 1 year old, and an ongoing struggle for increased skills, like pouring milk, using spoon and actually making it to the mouth. The process continues with demands of using wipes instead of sleeves, and eventually using knife and fork at times. Use encouragement, gentle coaching and patience. Overlook most mistakes, but point out the successes.
However, some kids, especially under the age of 3, just love to run and have a hard time controlling themselves. The concentration of balancing food on a fork or spoon, or just sitting still, builds up their physical energy until it bubbles like a tiny volcano within them. The longer they are forced to sit still, the more energy they gather. It’s almost impossible to stem – the explosion will come. Just go with it for some time. Make a game out of it. Let the toddler run around the house and grab a mouthful when passing. -It’s OK, if you say it’s OK!
When you feel the need to change a behavior, you may tell the child that you want a different behavior. Tell them, remind them as much as they need, and give them the space they need to run around afterwards.
How do you do it then?
Try to enjoy some mealtime together, as a family. Usually at least breakfast and / or supper. It is an opportunity to catch up, discuss plans and collect the thoughts of the day. The older the children get, the more exceptions there will be, with different activities to go to and friends to visit, but if supper is served at about the same time every day, it is still a node to return to as often as possible.
These joint meals is when you need to play your part as a role-model.
Try to make a good time out of even the simplest everyday meals. Let the table, at least for a while, be emptied of the bills, magazines, toys and coloring books. Set the table, light some candles, set up some flowers or maybe the kids have collected some pretty leaves or stones to put in a bowl… just try and make it look nice with whatever is possible at the moment.
Involve the kids in the process, at least some times. You learn to appreciate it more when you’ve put some energy behind it yourself.
Point out things to be appreciated: If you’ve had help from someone, say thank you. Let the rest of the family know, so that they can be appreciative too. If you’ve done some extra work yourself with a dish or the table setting, tell your family about it. If they don’t take the hint, you can tell them it would be nice with a “thank you” or some positive remarks if they have any.
That’s part of the education we provide: telling them about our feelings and wishes too. This makes it possible you’ll receive spontaneous compliments to be thankful for in the future. Also, it makes your children motivated to help out next time, so that you can thank them!
We can also direct our attention to details like the beautiful flowers in the vase or the cosy candles, so the kids can see and admire them too. Maybe they’ll find it fun to go picking the flowers next time, and then you can proudly present the bouquet for the rest of the family.
Try to provide reasonably healthy, well-prepared and tasty food with reasonable variation. Vary between your children’s preferred food and exciting new features that they may come to appreciate.
Make sure each meal contains a variety of dishes served separately, so that the picky child can always have something. Side-salads, pickled vegetables or some carrotsticks perhaps? In some families bread is served with every meal. This makes sure no one needs to leave the table hungry.
Desserts tend to complicate things and are not necessary in the everyday diet. The child will quickly learn if it is served something tastier after the main course, and save room for it. Desserts are often sweet, giving an unnecessary hyperglycemia before bedtime. If you want to serve dessert every now and then, fruit salads and smoothies are healthy alternatives. Fruit is always a good choice, but can just as well be served as an afternoon snack or mixed in a salad during the main course, for example.
When it doesn’t work?
– Quite often a problematic situation is linked to negative expectations. Stress (induced by conflict or feelings of inadequacy) makes good manners hard. Sometimes it helps just to ignore the problem for a while, to ease the tension. Try focusing on what works, what the child does that is just fine. Maybe it’s been calm and quiet from time to time, that’s not bad for a kid. It doesn’t have to perform all the time, just coexisting should be fine and appreciated.
– Whatever it is that doesn’t work, try talking friendly to your child about it. Tell it what you want, what change would make you happy. Ask the child what it feels and thinks. What is hard? Can you help it? Try to listen, understand, and reach an understanding.
– If the child makes direct, conscious, rule violations – like throwing things on the floor, or expressing itself using bad language, we must show that it is not okay. We can say it with a serious voice, or, if it happens again, lift the child out of its chair and thus banishing it from the table. Nice and easy. (Although, save the carrying off with the babies and 1 year olds. They can hardly control their movements and tend to get excited and play around. See some tips for their first education below *)
If or when the child becomes sad and repentant it should immediately get a second chance. It suffices to show young children that there CAN be bad consequenses for bad behavior. You must also be quick to comfort, forgive and show how to rectify what it just messed up. It is important for future motivation to always greet the returning child with friendly voices. A second chance shouldn’t come across as a strictly supervised probation – the meal is supposed to basically feel pleasant.
If the child itself doesn’t take initiative to return, try calling it back within a minute or two. Show the child you want it to be around. You miss them. You don’t want to fight. To be a parent means you have to be the one to take the first step towards reconciliation, a lot of the time. But meanwhile, you teach valuable lessons about forgiveness, problem solving and diplomacy to your child. Of course you shouldn’t let go of important boundaries or rules, but making up is important too.
* The babies and 1 year olds: What we can do is using plastic plates and mugs with a cap for them, to save ourselves some trouble. We can teach the child, kindly, how to wipe what they spill out (if we are not kind about it they will hate cleaning forever, and we don’t want that). We can tell them we want the plates and mugs to stay on the table. We can try and catch the hand and plate before it’s thrown again, or keep the plate put by holding it still. We can also, when tired of picking up and wipe, place the plates and mugs out of reach for a while, to make our point clear: “No, they are to stay here. You get them back when you want to eat / drink.” The baby must of course cry it’s heart out for disappointment. Get another chance. Then it must try this rule out, and will undoubtedly and promptly throw the mugs and plates straight to the floor when it get hold of it next. Then look at you.
So you must repeat yourself. Take the mugs and plates away. Hear the crying. Tell again that they are to stay ON the table, pat table to show what you mean. Give the child yet another chance. An easy going child takes that hint, after one, maybe two try outs. Another will not give in and maybe, you will have to stop giving more chances after the 3rd, not to make too much a game out of it. At least until the next meal.