A return to table manners

Jul 21, 2008 at 11:39 p.m. ET

During the summer, meals are looser. There are more barbecues outside, picnics on the beach, eating on the run from one sun-soaked activity to another, and so on. I've also noticed, on the evenings we do sit down at the table and not a picnic blanket, that table manners have taken a dive.

Messy Eater
Some meals you would think my kids had never been admonished to put napkins in laps or chew with mouths closed. Truly, they have, and that behavior has been modeled for them. But I think that this summer they have taken the "freedom" concept a little too far, and in spite of regular comments and requests from their parents. To that end, I've decided I can't wait until summer is over to get the kids back on a manners track.

Few instantaneous results

Teaching manners of any kind is a process, of course. It's the creation and reinforcement of new habits to replace old ones. Because we've gone through the process before - like their whole lives - I don't expect this refocusing to take too long. It does need to be deliberate, and discussed.

After talking with the boys (and girl) about why we are refocusing on manners and what the consequences will be for poor choices at the table, we start simple. Scooting one's chair in all the way, napkins in lap, waiting for everyone to be served. We'll move on to reviewing proper use of utensils, relative speed, and how not to "compliment" the chef. Next, appropriate table discussions and asking to be excused when the meal is over. We'll also discuss which manners can be bent in different eating situations, and which cannot.

It comes down to respect

We'll probably have discussions about why use manners at all. Manners are about respect for others, and about having a little self-respect. As with so many things, it's treating others as you would like to be treated - or, in this case, acting as you would like to see others act. To drive the point home, I have acted as the boys have acted at the dinner table. It wasn't pretty. They got the message.

But even if they do get it generally, it's still the breaking of a habit, and that takes time. Just as the manners slid over several weeks, it will take several weeks to get back on track. While it's okay to let down the manners guard in some small, specific ways when enjoying summer meals outdoors, basic table manners are important. I'm glad I started this process now before the manners slid any farther.

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