I decided early on that one of my jobs as a pedantic parent is to teach my children table manners. The Cap’n and I figure this goes hand-in-hand with our philosophy that kids will live up or down to parents’ expectations, and that it is never too early to establish the foundations of good manners. When our kids were still early talkers, we taught them the formula, “May I please…” and now have merely to remind them—in their occasional lapses into “I want…”—that “That is a ‘may’ question.”
As far as the Crunch family is concerned, table manners for young children consist of the following:
1) Sitting at the table for a reasonable duration of the meal. During the week, this means the 40 minutes or so of dinner, which consists of eating and hearing a short summary of everyone’s day. On Shabbat it means kiddush, motzi, and whatever of the appetizer course appeals. They are then excused to play until the “real food” is served.
2) Putting their napkins in their laps, using a fork or spoon for their food, keeping elbows off the table, and chewing with their mouths closed.
3) Asking others politely to pass them things.
4) Not interrupting conversations, but saying “Excuse me” and waiting until the conversation is ended (or paused) to be acknowledged.
For many families, table manners are something parents just don’t have the koach (strength) to enforce. True, correcting the same children on the same poor habits can be a bit like banging one’s head against the proverbial brick wall. But consider the consequences of giving up: Rearing up a child who as an adult holds a fork like a shovel, belches loudly at the table, announces, “I’m done” the second the food is gone from his plate, lifts his cereal bowl to scrape the last few cornflakes directly into his mouth, and eats salad with his hands. That might not bother some people, and people with manners like that have been known to get married, but I aim a little higher for the Crunch children. They understand from the categories on their chore charts (for which they receive daily stickers and an allowance commensurate with their week’s performance on Friday afternoons) that good table manners are as much expected of them as cleaning their rooms, setting the table, folding their laundry, and doing their homework.
In general, I enjoy eating with my children much more when they use good table manners. They’re neater eaters, dinnertime is more quiet and orderly, and I sometimes get to entertain the illusion that I’m eating with other human beings rather than barely-tame baboons. They occasionally take their knowledge of table etiquette too far, though, and have loudly corrected their visiting grandparents’ table manners (which was kind of cute) as well as those of friends who hosted us for a Shabbat meal (considerably more horrifying). The trick here, it seems, is to teach them manners as we would teach house rules: Adhere to what we observe, but don’t try to force it on others.