November 17, 2018 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Have things changed about when/how/whether to teach children how to hold a fork?

I was at dinner with friends and their 13 year old child, who I was surprised to see held his fork in his fist like a shovel with all the attendant clumsy awkwardness of having to rotate his arm and lift his elbow high to get the tines oriented to address certain food items. This is something I'm used to seeing very young children do when they are first learning how to use utensils, but not children of this age.

I don't see a lot of other kids this age holding a fork that way. This is a grip that is usually found alongside dining habits that are less than genteel, and one that is associated with the archetype of the rustic or oaf in adults. I wonder whether this kid may have some awkward times coming down the road in connection with table manners.

I'm not considering saying anything about it. It's none of my business. This is a good kid with good parents. I'm just wondering if the prevailing thought has changed to letting kids figure this out for themselves, and maybe he's just a latecomer to changing his grip.
posted by slkinsey to Human Relations (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I had an ex who ate like this. I knew I shouldn’t have cared but it bothered me a fair amount. I think it’s just that some people aren’t taught early and then those habits continue.
posted by raccoon409 at 5:35 AM on November 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

I assume his parents just don't care? I mean, he'll probably learn to do it the "grownup" way eventually. He'll probably have one of those awkward moments you mention (like, a date will call him out on it) and then he'll be mortified and fix it. I can easily see this being a battle that his parents just aren't interested in fighting.

I would be pretty hesitant to ascribe any broader trends to this particular kid. On the other hand, I don't remember anyone ever telling me how to hold a fork until I was staying at an uncle's house around age 14 or 15. Pretty sure I had the grip right by that point, but he wanted to see me transfer the fork from my left to right hand after cutting my meat but before putting it into my mouth, rather than cutting my meat and then putting the bite into my mouth with the fork still in my left hand. Dunno why I still remember that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:42 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm raising boys and I don't think it's that the thought has changed on the result that we want. But most parents I know are more about seeing the family meal as a point of connection, not correction.

I do correct my kids' manners, particularly those which relate to being thoughtful of others. But I have policed less some of the finer points overall. However, some of those points are weird like which hand do you hold the fork in and how do you put peas on it...and honestly I am tired out and using my capital on getting homework done most nights.

One of my kids had a vision problem where his depth perception used to be terrible and his use of utensils is catching up.

We occasionally do "fancy meals" where we break out salad forks and linen napkins and go over things.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:45 AM on November 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm in my 30s and I don't think I was ever formally taught table manners, outside of basics like "don't throw your food." My home culture eats with their hands, so it wasn't a high priority for my folks in the way that forcing a switch from left to right-handed was.

I have a weird mishmash of European and American fork-handling styles (what Anticipation... references above), but pincer grasp is a pretty early developmental thing. Does he pick up pencils with a fisted grasp (palmar grasp) as well? Either way, it's none of your business.
posted by basalganglia at 5:49 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a pediatric occupational therapist. Grasp development usually progresses naturally without intervention, but when it doesn't, it can become pretty difficult for a child to correct. Showing or teaching him the "right" way to eat may not be enough for him to be able to consistently use a more appropriate grasp, particularly if he has other fine motor issues (that may not be obvious to casual friends or even his family).
posted by deadcrow at 5:50 AM on November 17, 2018 [22 favorites]

When it comes to hills to die on, how you hold your fork isn't a good one. I remember teaching a few different friends in high school and then later in college in the dining hall how to hold cutlery so it was actually useful.

There's also been a lot of blending between American and Continental style dining, as well of course all the other non-western styles of cutlery and different kinds of meals that call for polite use of hands and so-on. That's what Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The's memory is about. As for me my grandma taught me Continental style when I was five and really into setting the table all fancy for Passover and learning how to fold napkins and stuff and it stuck.

I've always been the person in my friend group who they come to for dining etiquette questions. I'm in my mid 30s and everyone I know is making babies. I feel like my peers still come to me for dining etiquette sometimes. It's probably not unusual for parents of teens to have no clear grounding in cutlery usage unless they're part of the hospitality industry or surrounded by snobs like I was. I fully expect to be showing my new toddler friends how to hold forks so they're useful in a couple years.

But there's no "right" way to do it as long as the food goes from plate to mouth without much fallout in between, just shades of efficiency and tidiness. Ascribing oafishness to physicality like this is harsh and unnecessary. It's maybe something he's had trouble with, or something he hasn't wanted to change, but it doesn't imply a lack of intelligence or capability.
posted by Mizu at 5:53 AM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

It might be kind of difficult to sit next to him at a crowded table. There may be other stuff going on, or his parents might not have been taught this explicitly, so haven't paid attention. I did not teach my son how to grasp a fork, he learned by observation. When he was an adolescent, a cousin noted that he had lovely manners and I treasured that compliment, which surprised me.

Also, Miss Manners' books are far more entertaining to read than you might think.
posted by theora55 at 5:59 AM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

It did occur to me that this might be something to do with delayed development of fine-motor coordination, something that he mostly compensates for successfully without necessarily even realizing it, but which shows up occasionally in things like the way he holds his fork. No way to know, though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:05 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a soon-to-be-parent and I'm always MYSTIFIED but various table manners. I don't remember every being taught how to do this but I manage to hold the fork and knife correctly. One this that is quirky is that I *ALWAYS* have the fork in my right hand and the knife in my left. I never do any switching, which isn't any known "style" AFAIK.
posted by ancient star at 6:07 AM on November 17, 2018

How are the kid's parents' table manners?

Mr. Fish is a 40-something year old man who holds his fork like this. I chalk it up to my in-laws who have the worst table manners I've ever seen to the point where my FIL (shudders) picks his plate up, put his lips on the lip of the plate and shovels the last bits of food directly into his mouth Hoover-style. It is gross and drives me batty and is done in any given dining situation or location (including fancy restaurants).

The fork thing I've gotten over but the plate thing kills me so Mr. Fish stopped after I pointed it out (I by no means come from a refined family, but yeeeeesh). Mr. Fish comes from a family that eats so damn fast I literally have to eat before going over there or else I go hungry (or if at a restaurant get my food to go and resume eating at home).

I wonder if he adapted to his parents' table manners? I would also file under "none of your business" unfortunately.
posted by floweredfish at 6:12 AM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think that it's become less common for children to have formal lessons in manners--which I did (rather pointlessly) as a child--and that we as a society have become less prescriptive about table manners in all but the most formal settings.

I also think that this sort of fork use is common in kids--even older kids--who have fine motor problems, for example. My kid is sixteen but has a benign essential tremor, and sometimes finds holding their silverware like this provides more stability than they would otherwise have.
posted by mishafletch at 6:53 AM on November 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To be clear, despite the several reminders, I know that my friends' child's fork-holding habits and their teaching or non-teaching thereof is none of my business. It's right there in the ask! I'm not asking whether I should say something to my friends or to their son. He's a good kid and they seem to be doing a good job raising him. I'm just curious as to whether thought as to teaching this sort of thing has changed in the last 20 years or so, and also what common thought is with respect to holding one's fork in a "shovel grip."

FWIW, I do think that basic table manners influence how one is perceived by others, and comments in this thread reinforce my supposition that holding one's fork in a "shovel grip" is viewed by most people as not meeting that bar. This is a reason I would try to teach my own kid to hold his fork in a standard grip. In my view, this hardly equates to extensive training in table etiquette, but rather basic table manners along the lines of "keep your elbows off the table" and "don't chew with your mouth open." That said, parents have a lot of different things on their parenting lists, and prioritizing other things can certainly make sense.
posted by slkinsey at 7:05 AM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Complementary to the previous responses ("say nothing, he's not your kid"), I think a grip like that is still career limiting, and it's better to have a conventional grip if possible. So if you're asking me (who still doesn't have a kid yet), no, I fully do intend on teaching them to use utensils correctly, including chopsticks.
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:09 AM on November 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

I held my fork that way until I was 18, at college, and a cute boy I was eating lunch with started mimicking me, without a word, making eye contact the whole time as he held his fork awkwardly and shoveled in his lunch. It was memorable and embarrassing, but 16 years later I still catch myself doing it sometimes. It’s an incredibly hard habit to break.
posted by beandip at 7:14 AM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I taught my girls how to properly hold their silverware from the get-go. I'm also with you about no elbows on the table, keeping your mouth closed when you chew and placing your napkin in your lap when you sit down.

I was raised that way; learning how to set a table from when when I was probably 5 or 6. I came from an upper-middle class family, where tables were formally set for holidays. I learned how to do full china, crystal and silverware settings probably around 9 or 10. (I haven't had a big formal dinner in a long time, but I still love how it looks.) Even for regular meals, the dinner table was set with a fork, knife and spoon regardless of whether you would use everything. That's just the way it was done. My girls have been setting the table since they were little (they can't do a formal one) but still know that your bread plate goes to the left and your glass goes to the right for when we eat out. They also know that you always start from the outside and work your way in.

I think that table manners matter, whether it's at a job interview luncheon, a dinner date, or just having a meal with a friend's family. People notice this sort of thing. More importantly, I would never want them to be in a situation where they are at an important function and feel embarrassed because they feel out of place and don't know what they are supposed to do at a table. I feel it's my responsibility to prepare them for the world as best I can, not to mention a reflection of me as a parent.

posted by dancinglamb at 8:51 AM on November 17, 2018 [9 favorites]

Many of the families I know have parents who work long hours and frankly, do not have the time, energy, or inclination to correct their children over dinner for anything but the most egregious offenses. Their time with their children is limited and their choice is to spend it doing things besides teaching table manners.

So to answer your question, yes, things are different now for many families. The mechanics of eating and how they might be perceived aren’t the same priority that they once were, for better or for worse.
posted by corey flood at 9:39 AM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm a parent and I can't think of any time I've talked with my kids about how forks should be held, and I can't think of any conversations with parent-friends about fork holding. I think it just isn't a thing we do. I have no idea how my kids hold their forks, despite eating one or two meals with them every day.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:53 AM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm in my thirties. My dirt poor, normally neglective and abusive parents taught my brother and me American table manners. However in middle school I took a Home Ec-esque class which spent a significant time on European table manners. Eventually I just kind of adopted something in-between.

I've been complimented and teased enough about my table manners to feel like it's unusual to use formal styles and that many people do notice, particularly when the style differs from their own... or from their expectations of you.
posted by sm1tten at 12:37 PM on November 17, 2018

One this that is quirky is that I *ALWAYS* have the fork in my right hand and the knife in my left. I never do any switching, which isn't any known "style" AFAIK.

It is. It's the standard European approach but the left-handed version.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:36 PM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

the answer to your question is that in general, as more families have two working parents and therefore OVERALL (of course there are exceptions) less time/ energy to expend on teaching (which really means enforcing) manners at the dinner table; and as parenting styles generally are becoming more permissive; that yes, it's more common for kids not to be taught table manners, for better or worse. That includes not only cutlery use but things like mouth-open chewing and not interrupting.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:09 PM on November 17, 2018

Mod note: A few comments deleted. We need to not drive off into general discussion here; please refocus on OP's specific question: whether things have changed in terms of how kids are being taught to hold a fork.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:09 PM on November 17, 2018

Is it a cultural difference? We taught our kids how to hold silverware, but only because forks, spoons, and knives are *not* normally part of our eating culture (we usually use hands or chopsticks). My oldest holds a fork "funny", similar to the shovel technique you describe, but with his elbow tucked into his side. He also holds his pencil the same way. :)
posted by alathia at 9:58 AM on November 19, 2018

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