How can I improve my daughter's table manners?
July 27, 2011 6:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I improve my daughter's table manners?

My nearly-9-year-old daughter has dreadful table manners, much to the consternation of her mother and me. She slouches in her seat and even slides under the table. She gets up and runs around the table during the course of a meal. She uses utensils improperly. She whines and fusses. She doesn't engage in polite table conversation during the course of a meal.

I'd like this behavior to end. Please help me improve her manners.

OK, I know what some of you are thinking: Is this really that big of a deal? Am I just being a humorless prig? Well, this is a fairly big deal to me, with the understanding that, of course, there are many other problems she could have that would be much worse than this. I grew up in a house where manners were emphasized, and I believe in their importance. First impressions are crucial; table manners, in particular, can contribute to (or detract from) someone's impression of another person in a very powerful way. Good table manners will serve her in excellent stead when she spends time with other children’s families, when she dates, when she interviews, and so forth. I'd like my daughter to have a solid grounding in all manner of etiquette, and, for the time being, I'd very much like her to develop an age-appropriate sense of appropriate table manners.

Relevant information:

• She's a great kid and I love her to pieces. Her basic sense of manners, in particular, seem to me to be decent for her age and relative to her peers. She's good, for her age, with eye contact, hand-shaking, thank-you notes, pleases and thank-you's, telephone etiquette, and dealing with adults in general. That just makes this all the more puzzling to us.
• Our usual disciplinary measures (loss of a possible reward or positive reinforcement) work well in most other contexts but emphatically not in the area of table manners.
• Her younger brother (age 7) has better table manners than she does. I mention this to suggest that I think the behavior my wife and I exhibit – i.e., the table manners we hope and expect the kids will emulate – aren't bad in a general sense; they just don't appear to be having a positive effect on my daughter.
• She's a picky eater, but her manners are poor regardless of the extent to which she likes or dislikes her meals.
• She's a smart kid, and I'm sure there are times that she lets her table manners slide even lower than her usual standards to tweak her mother and me when she's feeling out of sorts. What concerns me is that her baseline table manners are very poor, even when she is in a good mood and has no reason to "stick it" to her parents.
• So many problems of childhood seem fairly temporary to me – the kids usually age out of them. I’m concerned that her behavior at the table is not improving.
• Maybe the negative behavior is reinforced in the school cafeteria? This has been going on for years, since she was in day care.
• We are strongly considering having her (and her brother) take a course in table manners at a local school of protocol, so that she can receive instruction in a classroom setting (she loves school), from an adult authority figure who is not a parent. I'd welcome any insights about such an approach.

Many thanks in advance for your advice.
posted by cheapskatebay to Grab Bag (37 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It may sound harsh, but when I was acting up a lot at the dinner table (between ages 8-10), chewing with my mouth open, sliding out of my chair onto the floor... basically doing everything your daughter is doing, my stepdad laid down the law. I would get one warning about my behavior at the table. If I acted up after that warning, I would be sent to bed, and whatever dinner I got would be whatever I managed to put in my mouth before I started misbehaving.

I'm not advocating that you withhold food, but dismissing her from the table on the grounds that only people who can behave properly get to sit at the table to eat... that might help.
posted by palomar at 6:42 PM on July 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

If she gets up from the table or doesn't show proper etiquette give her one warning: Jane, we all know you know how to behave at the table when we are eating. This is your warning to behave properly. Next step will be removing your plate and you sitting in your room till dinner is done.

If she gets up or acts out, do the warning, take her plate away if she doesn't comply and send her away from the table. Going to bed hungry a few nights isn't going to kill her. We did this with our 2&4 yr olds and they can sit through an 8 course meal now without a single problem.
posted by Sweetmag at 6:44 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't make it a war if you can at all help it. Can you make it a game? There's no reinforcement like positive reinforcement, and if she's got a competitive or perfectionist streak this might be a way to pump lots of positive reinforcement into both your kids.

I say go for the class, too. Is it kids-only or could you or her mom take the class beforehand or in a different session? It would be useful if you were using the same vocabulary and tactics at home as she's getting in school.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:44 PM on July 27, 2011

When I was working at MIT, there was a table manners instructor who actually came around and taught people the nitty-gritty details of proper table manners. She was a very, VERY proper lady, and I think that kind of over-the-top instruction would be fun for a 9-year-old.

Then you could get her to teach YOU about proper table manners, which might make her feel like the expert in it.
posted by xingcat at 6:45 PM on July 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

I think an etiquette course is a great idea, if it's done in a fun and kind way.

Have you tried having one "fancy" dinner a week, at which the table is set specially and everyone gets dressed up? Or goes out to a restaurant? When I was a kid, I was always being dragged to "grownup" dinners and luncheons, and so I had enough experience, by the age of eleven, to pass for an adult with regards to table manners and polite conversation. Maybe making family dinner into a nice event might help encourage best practices, particularly if you could work in a bit of gamification.
posted by brina at 6:47 PM on July 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

We are strongly considering having her (and her brother) take a course in table manners at a local school of protocol, so that she can receive instruction in a classroom setting (she loves school), from an adult authority figure who is not a parent. I'd welcome any insights about such an approach.

Why wouldn't you do this? Your daughter lacks remedial skills in an area for which what is effectively tutoring is available. If the class is geared to her age group, this seems like a great idea. I think many of the above ideas in terms of expectations and consequences will be easier to implement when everyone is confident the kids do, in fact, have the correct skillset and the knowledge of how and when to apply it.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:51 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is quite clearly a choice on her part, so I'm in camp "you don't get to claim the privileges of civilization and act like a barbarian while doing so." One warning and that's it for the night.

My parents did this with my screaming fits in restaurants - I had to go outside with a parent and sit on the curb, and when the first parent was done with their dinner, they'd switch, so the whole thing took twice as long AND I got nothing I wanted out of it. I only know this from second-hand reports, because my screaming fits in restaurants were unsurprisingly nipped in the bud after a few months. It worked on all my younger siblings, too.

The table manners class would be fun, especially if she were exposed to older, popular kids who demonstrate that they value good manners. But the zero tolerance thing is going to be necessary with or without a class. Crawling under the table? Come on. It's classic stupid kid stuff, not a lack of understanding what to do.
posted by SMPA at 6:53 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

How fancy are your dinners? If you lay on the candles, wine glasses, linen napkins, post-prandial poetry readings, might she perk up and play along? My small daughter eats very nicely with me (with the aforementioned having been ritualised), like a normal kid with the grandparents, and well with Dad, who is much more casual and would be the one posting "Lay off" in here. (Do you go out to restaurants, do you have dinner guests, is she still the same?)

It sounds like this might be her one little locus of control over you; +1 'avoid making it into a war' as it will be awful if it is in that position and she knows it's driving you nuts.

The class sounds like a great idea.
posted by kmennie at 6:53 PM on July 27, 2011

Your question says more than you realize about you. You come off as authoritarian and intimidating. I can see why she does this, especially when compared with her brother. It may be the only control she feels she has. Seriously, totally ignore this for a while, and find some things to compliment in her behavior. She's nine. Yes, there are many other problems she could have that would be much worse than this, and they may show up if you don't back off and let her be a child for a while longer.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:55 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is she being told when she's done eating, or is she allowed to decide that for herself? (clean plate, must try two bites of each thing, no dessert unless you _______ - I'm not a fan of any of these food attitudes, they are very destructive of healthy eating and of agency in general) Check out Ellyn Satter and her rules for feeding children.

Because if she doesn't feel in control of something at the table, she may be trying to control the whole show. Especially if her behavior is getting attention from you.

Is there a tv on in the background? I ask bc it's really hard for me to 'be in one place' if there's too much stimulation in the environment. (for me it's add. But it's normal for kids to need a quieter space and a sense of...ritual maybe? Try lighting candles for dinner, setting a more reverential tone.)

Seconding dinners out, but that all the food gets packed up "to go" after strike 1, and the family finishes dinner at home.

Never reward or punish with food/withholding food.

Yes, try a table manners class for both kids together, as DarlingBri says, to be sure they really do know the rules. Bonus points if you can fond a class that explains some of the reasons (more likely the justifications) behind the rules.
posted by bilabial at 6:56 PM on July 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Your question says more than you realize about you. You come off as authoritarian and intimidating. I can see why she does this, especially when compared with her brother. It may be the only control she feels she has. Seriously, totally ignore this for a while, and find some things to compliment in her behavior. She's nine. Yes, there are many other problems she could have that would be much worse than this, and they may show up if you don't back off and let her be a child for a while longer.

Your answer says more than you realize about you -- for instance, that you did not read the entire question, because the OP laid out TONS of things that the daughter does well and is complimented on. The OP did not mention punishments or repercussions that they currently use on the child -- all that was mentioned was that her table manners are awful, and the OP is worried because table manners are really important in life and since the child is doing so awesome in all other areas it's really weird that she's doing so badly in this one area, especially since the other child in the home is able to mimic the behavior modeled by the parents. So I'm not sure where the accusation of authoritarian behavior comes from, but it doesn't match up at all with the information that's been given.
posted by palomar at 7:05 PM on July 27, 2011 [26 favorites]

I was a total twat at the dinner table growing up. Elbows on the table, shoveled food into my mouth from the edge of the plate, chewed with my mouth open, read or watched tv at the table in order to ignore the family drama going on around me, speed-ate to get out of there faster, rocked my chair back, propped my feet up on my brother's name it. (Well, I rarely whined or shouted at the table, but that was mostly because I just wanted to get out of there and go read in private.

Aaaanyway, the point is that even from a very young age, I knew better than to pull that shit in public. I had great manners elsewhere, even at the lunch table at school. My feeling about this (even today) is, it's my own house and my own table and my own family and my own dinner. I'm not there to impress anyone--I'm there to eat dinner, a necessary part of life. I'm gonna do it in the way I'm the most comfortable.

Does she act out at the table when you're eating in restaurants? Or at a friend's house? (Send her over for a sleepover somewhere and ask the other kid's parents to dish.) If she's got sloppy manners in public, that's one thing (and feel free to police that all you want). But at home, just give it a rest. Unless you have confirmation that she has bad manners everywhere, trust that your daughter is smart enough to know the difference between "relaxed family eating" time and "eating in public" time. My parents nagged me all the time about my table manners at home, and all it did was make me mad and want to speed-eat and avoid dinnertime even more.
posted by phunniemee at 7:09 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had one word in my mind when I read your question: CONTROL. This is about control. Her behaviour irritates you. It probably distracts from the actual consumption of food, which I think may be a bigger issue than you said/realise.

She knows the expectations. This is her subtle rebellion. Either ignore it (with positive reinforcement for her well-behaving brother) or deescalate the situation and deal with the behaviour in an unemotional neutral tone of voice and follow up with consquences.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:11 PM on July 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, on preview I guess I'm in the minority. I have a 6yo. I have gone over to the dark side and confessed to him that I believe many table manners are much ado about nothing. But hear me out. What this means is that he and I are now on the same side of the issue. I let him know that there are situations where table manners are important (and I spell those out in advance of encountering them because, hey, I'm on his side), and what the expectations will be of him (I spell out the age-appropriate ones and increase the skill level as necessary), and what people may think of him if he fails to exhibit them. He gets to choose his behavior and the realistic/natural consequences that result.

I also reassure him that we are waaaay more relaxed at home. Nonetheless there is a certain threshold of behavior we expect him to meet (no feet on the table, no throwing food, he can get up once but after that we assume he's done eating and food goes away, etc.). The litmus test is usually: is everyone able to enjoy dinnertime if you do that? Per your examples: Being under the table is distracting for other people. Please sit or be done with dinner. Running? Ditto. Utensils being used as weapons or percussion instruments? I remove as necessary since that's dangerous or disruptive to others. Whining and fussing? That seems normal, but annoying. Don't treat it as a dinner-time issue, treat it as an irritating habit issue (ex: "I have a hard time listening when you speak like that.") and possibly work on that only away from the table for a while. Sitting straight is...subjective (a lot of kids are exhausted by the end of the day). I would let that slide. Conversation? Model but don't force. Be super respectful and attentive to whatever her contributions are (manage interruptions gently and always return to ask what she wanted to say and hear her out, etc.). Do *not* compare her unfavorably to her little brother. That's breaking more than you're trying to fix.

With any of the consequences, don't lord them over her. Spell out the minimum expectations in advance (post them nearby even), explain natural consequences (people won't listen to her if she whines, she will be excused if she's playing not eating, etc.), point to or repeat the rule on first (or second, whatever) offense, quietly follow through and continue on with your meal.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:16 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

See, I want to be cool with 'relaxed family eating' but as a girlfriend, it really grosses me out when guys eat w their mouths open, leave the napkin on the table, and/or make poop jokes at the table.

I freely admit that I'm a little uptight, but I like consistency in table manners. Much harder to slip up and belch at grandma's house if you don't have to code switch your etiquette.

If she wants to loosen her table manners as an adult, that'll be much easier than tightening them up.
posted by bilabial at 7:16 PM on July 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Only thing I can add is that you and your spouse demonstrate good manners yourself and remain calm. If you act out, your manners are also bad. I learned good manners from my parents; they yelled and shamed them into me. I am not sure that is the best way. I have great manners now and I think they are important socially. Perhaps a class in etiquette will help. If she is a girly-girl perhaps you can build on that and have proper tea parties where manners matter very much. I would also set the table as formally as possible. Candles, cloth napkins, proper silverware, flowers, the whole shebang, it changes the mood of the meal. I learned more from these types of meals than getting yelled at.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 7:19 PM on July 27, 2011

There's a difference between claiming to read a question and actually understanding what's being asked. The OP didn't ask if he SHOULD improve his daughter's table manners. He asked HOW to do it. There's nothing preventing people who disagree with the premise from moving on to another question.

cheapskatebay, as a fellow parent, I completely agree with why you'd want to equip your kids with these skills. Mine's only 3, so like most people answering here, I can't claim authority or experience (though even if I could, every kid's different). That said, can you drill down into what might be going on with your daughter? People can claim "rebellion" all they want - how do they know? How about treating her more like an adult as asking her what's up?

My personal hunch is she's bored. I'd take every meal out as an opportunity to teach one part of table manners and have her help you (discreetly!) check out how other people in the room are doing, as a game. Beyond teaching her what's ok/not ok, it'll also give her some lessons about how important it is to observe/perceive instead of simply acting.

Personally? I'm not above mirroring my kid's bad behavior at home. Kids often don't see how what they're doing reads to others, so seeing dad as barbarian once in a while can really help to drive home what you're trying to get across.

Best of luck. Let us know how it goes.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 7:41 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mom had 5 kids within 7 years. I was the youngest.

My job was to help set the table every night. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. I had to sit in the middle of the deacon bench because my brother is left-handed so he got the left-hand end. Seriously. If any of us had acted up at dinner like that it would have been straight to bed.

My folks are really mild mannered people. I got a quarter for helping do the dishes when I was 8 (woo-hoo, penny candy!). But if I'd done that stuff at dinner, no way.

You are the parent. You are teaching your daughter that it's okay to behave this way. Just say, "Daughter, sit up straight or you go to your room." "Daughter, no getting up and running around or you go to your room."

Then take her to her room.

The 9 year olds can be challenging, I know. It is the onset of brattiness and rebel behavior. But you don't have to tolerate it and if you do it now, watch out for the tween years, heh.

Make sure you are giving her positive time, outdoor time and craft time and reading time (letting her read to you because she's not a baby anymore). My daughter loved making friendship bracelets from embroidery floss, so I bought her that and the beads, etc. But yeah she was mouthy and bratty at that age too. So as long as she's getting the attention in other areas, it's not okay to exhibit those behaviors and you can reinforce that by giving her timeouts. "Sorry, you can't sit at the table if you are going to act like that."

And Mom used to get out the sherbert glasses every Sunday with our roast and wow, that was cool, getting a roast beef and then ice cream sundaes in stemmed glasses for dessert. With hot fudge, mmm. I wouldn't have dared misbehave and miss that.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:45 PM on July 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

>it's my own house and my own table and my own family and my own dinner. I'm not there to impress anyone--I'm there to eat dinner, a necessary part of life. I'm gonna do it in the way I'm the most comfortable.

While I usually agree with phunnimee, I can't disagree with this attitude (probably carried to more of an extreme than phun means) more strongly. Not advocating fish knives and crooked pinkies whilst eating pizza in front of the TV, but the people I want to impress most ... or at least the people I least want to disgust .... are my own family. If you wouldn't chew with your mouth open or loudly slurp sauce off your fingers on a first date or job interview, why on earth would you do it in front of your family?

The OP is right that graceful manners will serve his daughter well. You're right to work on this, and I wish you the best.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 8:14 PM on July 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing the "one warning" routine. And stick to it. I can't tell you how many times I was excused to my room because of laughing or acting unpleasant at the table. It really lodged in my head that grownups expected a certain level of decorum, even if I thought it was silly.
posted by hermitosis at 8:22 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If she's an otherwise well-behaved kid, are you sure she's not just bored out of her mind at the dinner table? When me and my siblings were little, we had "civilized dinner conversation" time where they basically forced us to learn how to make polite conversation by each going around and saying something about our day, or something we had recently learned about, etc. It was something to pass the time while eating as well. Are you doing something like that?
posted by bleep at 8:33 PM on July 27, 2011

Always hit post too soon. Anyway if you give her something to do and think about other than eating, which is not that interesting, it might make her less likely to try to amuse herself in inappropriate ways (which may or may not include incurring your wrath). THEN you can start in with the propriety stuff. Since she's already well behaved I doubt that that absorbing that stuff is actually the problem.
posted by bleep at 8:36 PM on July 27, 2011

In our house (8 year old with cognitive disabilities, 4 year old attention whore), we have adopted the phrase "in this house, we observe the barest trappings of civilization".

That said, we give the kids three chances. We started with a post-it at their place mat and every transgression of a significant nature was an "X". Three X's and you're done, no questions asked, no arguments. If you don't comply, you are escorted out of the room and that's it, you're done.

Does this work? Absolutely. Three is a lot of wiggle room, especially for the young who, let's face it, are going to screw around because it's fun. So a transgression usually goes like this, "OK, Daughter, you have an X" siad with no anger or acrimony. "Do you know why you got an X?" "No yelling" "That;s right. No yelling at the table." And we're done. Move on. If they thought wrong, we correct and again, done move on.

Now, the hardest thing was that the kids got into the pattern of eating the bare minimum just to get dessert and would be irritating negotiators for it. Solution? Talk about dessert, it's an X. And now we have 0 negotiation. You eat, you talk. Sometimes you mess up. Sometimes you don't.

We've now added in a reward system as well - if the kids get 0 X's (which is relatively rare, because hey, they're kids), they get a quarter and high praise.

tl;dr - set reasonable rules and clear consequences, stick by them. we use a 3 strike rule and initially it was VERY HARD when strike three was reached. It gets better. Add reward in later.
posted by plinth at 8:42 PM on July 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is absolutely an appropriate area for some big time discipline.

I'm also an advocate for the class -- how bout the whole family takes the class, and then gets to use those skills at a fancy dinner once a week.

But set a new baseline for everyday as well -- if you aren't sitting at the table, you are finished eating.
posted by freshwater at 8:42 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The "one warning and off to bed" technique might work, but I think there are lots of better techniques you could use that aren't as all-or-nothing/high stakes.

-Be really specific about what you want: Does your daughter know exactly what the expectations are? Is it that she can't slouch or get up, but she is allowed to have elbows on the table? Can she chew with her mouth open? Make a clear list of what manners you expect (you could even involve her in making the list!), and go over it with both her and her brother.
-Specific Feedback: when your daughter is doing something appropriately, compliment her and explain why what she's doing is the right thing. "Thanks for sitting up, Daughter! When you're sitting up like that I can tell you are paying attention to our conversation." Similarly, and this shouldn't happen as much even if she does these things more, when she's acting inappropriately, identify what she's doing and why it's impolite.
-Be clear about the objective: talk to your daughter about her manners before you eat. Go over what she should remember to do, and why she should do it. You can use other things she does as examples. ("Remember how you wrote that Thank You note to Grandma, and how happy it made her to know you liked her gift? That's just like how at dinner, you should always _______")
-Make the dinner more engaging: Talk about stuff your daughter likes to talk about. In fact, you could put her in charge of leading the conversation one night. Beforehand, you could sit and help her plan what she wants to talk about, and how to engage everyone in the family in that topic. Or you could use NoRelationToLea's idea of making a game out of identifying bad manners in others. Tell her you and your wife are each going to display one bad manner over the course of dinner, and make it a contest to see who can pick up on it more quickly (and no playing if she herself is displaying bad manners).

The manners class would also useful, as long as it will be fun/engaging enough for a 9 year old. If she does it, make sure you know what exactly is being taught so you can reinforce everything.
posted by violetish at 8:48 PM on July 27, 2011

As far as the polite conversation:

Does she like to play 20 Questions? We used to play that at the dinner table; more engaging for a kid than normal table chitchat, and if you were goofing around you didn't get to play.

I love the idea of making her an expert on some area of table manners - eg proper way to set the table maybe? Can you give her one rule that she gets to be the "manners police" about - eg no elbows on the table - and she can call other family members out for it, with some funny consequence (eg three strikes means no dessert for the elbow-tabler)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 PM on July 27, 2011

I'd like this behavior to end.

1-2-3 Magic.
posted by flabdablet at 8:56 PM on July 27, 2011

Which, as applied to this particular problem, is pretty much what plinth does.
posted by flabdablet at 8:59 PM on July 27, 2011

Adding some fun to the discipline side: finger food night, eating with chopsticks night, learning the rules of sushi night, etc. Take them to an Ethiopian restaurant and scoop up food with injera.
posted by cyndigo at 9:10 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can only say this: when I started taking my kids to restaurants when they were very, very small, we enforced "restaurant behavior" even though they were non-verbal: if they started making a huge fuss, one of us would pick 'em up and take 'em outside (while the other stayed with the other kid), and soothe them etc. without disturbing anyone.

As they got older, and got verbal, the pattern became very simple: one warning about using "restaurant behavior," and if they persisted, out we'd go for a talking-to. But frankly, it didn't happen often, because they'd already learned not to do it. And as they got old enough to discuss it, I explained that we don't want to be rude to the other people who are eating in the restaurant with us. Simple to understand, and surprisingly effective.

They've been going to nice adult restaurants since they were six weeks old, they're still very welcome at the first restaurant they've ever been to, and wherever we go they have gotten unsolicited compliments on their behavior and how much unlike other kids in restaurants they are. So it seems to be working, and despite the discipline they still enjoy going to restaurants and have a lot of (appropriate noise level) fun.
posted by davejay at 9:29 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

She slouches in her seat and even slides under the table. She gets up and runs around the table during the course of a meal.

I feel people are concentrating on the "table manners" part of this post, when really she lacks the rudimentary ability to stay at the table. Can you say, "Do you want to sit at the table with us and eat now, or do you want to eat later by yourself?" and enforce it? (Or in another room by herself.) It seems like she is desperate for attention during dinner time; maybe you can isolate and contain that behavior by not letting her keep disrupting the meal. I bet a couple times of her eating by herself would stop it. Then you can enforce that she can get positive attention (via conversation, etc.) during dinner hour and maybe work on the niceties.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:59 PM on July 27, 2011

The getting up and running around suggests she may just not have the attention span to sit still and make polite conversation.

I certainly didn't at that age, and I was perfectly willing to just not eat anything to avoid sitting still. My family's compromise was letting me read at the table at home - otherwise I may have starved. I assure you I have lovely manners in public, but there's no way in hell 9 year old me would have been able to manage every night at home. There are more interesting things than making polite small talk with family, and family who love her should realize that. And there are VERY few real world situations where you have to have proper, polite meals EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.

The suggestions of making things fun with etiquette classes, over-the-top trappings, and fancy restaurants and ethnic food seem like a good way to get her engaged. But again, it's highly unlikely that she'll be able to keep it up every single day, so recognize that and don't set her up to fail.
posted by jetsetlag at 11:52 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have her eat somewhere else ( not with the family) for some time. Somewhere that is NOT a punishment to be there, but maybe boring enough that she'll want to go back to the family table soon. Give her her enough time to eat but not more time that she'll play around. Tell her that table manners are an important part of eating as a family, and that you'd all like her back, but not as before.
Maybe she'll get the picture by herself and improve, or maybe she'll prefer eating alone for a while, until she snaps out of whatever phase she's going through. But remember, it's not meant to be punishment, just some sort of "you have to know table manners to deserve being at the family table".
posted by CrazyLemonade at 12:06 AM on July 28, 2011

This doesn't speak to all of your issues, but my memory of sitting at the table as a kid says it can be surprisingly difficult to sit up for a long time on an adult sized dining chair when you are much smaller than the intended occupant.

If you sit back far enough to lean on the seat back you can't reach the food easily and your legs stick out the front. So you sit on the front of the seat. Sitting up straight on the front of the seat is tiring because you can't lean on the back of the chair easily from there. As soon as you tire and lean backwards you can end up sliding off the seat and end up under the table. I'm sure it's possible for a little kid to maintain a decorous seated position on a large slippery dining chair, but it's much harder for them. They can't even brace their feet on the floor.

Could you try getting her a footrest, and putting a cushion against the back of the chair?
posted by emilyw at 12:43 AM on July 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't have children, but can remember very clearly from my childhood: I really, really, really wanted to go out to dinner with my parents. Whenever they got a babysitter, I'd ask them why I couldn't go to dinner, too. I know they gave the "sometimes we need to have a Mom-and-Dad-only dinner", which I didn't mind as much (and is more polite that "really, we need to eat without a child to preserve our sanity").

But they also said that if I could eat dinner quietly and politely I could go with them. So first we practiced at home. Then we actually spent some time where we would get dressed up a little and go to a fast food place and play at restaurant behavior. And then I got to go to real adult restaurants as a reward. The message I got, very clearly, was "act like an adult and you get to do fun adult stuff".

It really worked for me, of course YMMV.
posted by lillygog at 6:05 AM on July 28, 2011

Wait, she's a picky eater? And she doesn't behave well at mealtime? Even if you've figured out what foods she likes now, I'd be willing to bet that there's been a long history of trying to persuade her to eat things she doesn't like. Dinnertime for a picky-eater kid I know has been a battle since the time she was 2, just trying to get sustenance into her stomach. Although she's eating better now, her manners are kind of horrendous. Thank god she's at least eating her bread, so what if she's licking the jam off it first and then rolling it up into little balls and putting them in her mouth one by one, and then sliding around in her chair and fussing before she's willing to eat any of the crust, she's at least eating almost the whole slice of bread and jam! She's 6. I can totally imagine her becoming a 9-year-old who's easily distracted, can't stay sitting at the table, and is generally a pain in the neck at mealtimes - basically just because mealtimes have *always* been a minor battle of wills, and *never* entirely enjoyable. And because the stakes have traditionally been different - but "it doesn't matter how the food gets in your mouth, just eat it" will eventually become "this lovingly prepared and nutritious food is to be eaten respectfully and pleasantly in a manner fit for public viewing, with neither it nor you hitting the floor."

My point being, if she's not traditionally been a fan of eating, it's likely that her mealtime rules were at some point subtly different from her brother's, even if you didn't intend them to be. This may be the source of their different behaviors now.
posted by aimedwander at 6:52 AM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can imagine her taking etiquette classes and excelling, and behaving exactly the same way at home as she does now. She sounds bored and/or like she needs attention. Which I imagine you're giving her every time she acts out. I would do three things: 1) forget about insisting on polite conversation, people should be able to eat in silence if they like. This is not worth fighting about. 2) ignore her completely except when she is using her utensils properly, sitting up, &c. Let her whine and fuss. Reward her with attention when she's being personable. 3) Make the rule: if you get out of your seat, that's the signal that you are done with dinner. This includes sliding down out of your seat. Plate gets taken away and that's it, even if you sit down again. When she's "done" she doesn't get to hang around, she needs to go entertain herself. This gives her the opportunity to control the situation, with consequences that are easy to understand. As parents, you're going to really have to control your behavior as well: do not engage at all when she's being bratty, not even giving the stink-eye. Be genuine with your attention when she chooses to sit and eat. You can even explain to her that you're not going to pay attention if she's not behaving, because she's old enough to understand. Obviously if she escalates to something really obnoxious she gets a time out, but most kids that understand that you're really interested in the cool things they do rather than the crummy tend to respond positively.

I would also make an effort to engage her in the shopping and dinner-making if she's interested. This gives her some agency in what's actually happening at the table beforehand. Not allowing her to choose ice cream for dinner every night, but starting by saying things like "we need three tomatoes for the pasta sauce, can you choose the best three?" and "I could use your help mixing this hamburger". Get her brother involved as well. If preparing and cooking food become a fun thing, eating it is a logical extension of that.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:16 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older And 1   |   Inkorgible Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.