Sit down and shut up!
April 17, 2007 8:17 AM   Subscribe

What is the proper seating arrangement for at home family dinners?

I assume the father sits at the head of the table and the mother sits at the other end, across from father. Eldest son to father's right?

What about the eldest daughter? Younger siblings? What if father isn't in the picture? What if Grandpa lives with you? What if Great-Aunt Gertrude is a guest or the whole gang is over for Thanksgiving dinner?

We purchased a new dining table and our kids broke into an argument/debate about who would get to sit where at the new table. I'd like to end the bickering with a nice firm etiquette rule.

Currently in our family (at least previous to the new table) father sits at the head, mother at the other end closest to the kitchen, eldest child to father's right, youngest child to father's left so Dad can glare and growl when he won't eat his peas, and middle child to mother's left and next to oldest chlid, so he can't easily escape every 3 minutes. No one sits to moms right.
posted by LadyBonita to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Seating at our house is Dad at head and then clockwise older daughter, son (oldest child), skipped seat at other end of table from Dad, younger daughter (youngest child), then Mom. Mom switched her position with youngest, because she didn't want to sit across from son and watch him eat (It can be distracting), and also now she and I can talk more easily. Other than that change, we have never deviated unless company comes. And I really don't know why it evolved this way.
posted by genefinder at 8:26 AM on April 17, 2007

I am a big fan of children learning etiquette, but do you really want to teach them patriarchal power in this manner. In our house at least, we have no one sitting at the head of the table, and I, the father, sit closest to the kitchen.
posted by caddis at 8:29 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do you really need to appeal to authority here? Do you always want to have to find the right book when you want to stop your kids' bickering? You're the parents, so I think you should just decide. An etiqutte book probably isn't going to cover this anyway, since it's a private family affair.
posted by putril at 8:41 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

if everyone was sitting on their butts the whole time, my mom was happy. and as far as the kids fighting over seats, how about a rotating arrangement? everyone gets the head chair for a week and then switch? it's called "sharing".
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:42 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

What caddis said. And in our house, the person who usually cooks sits closest to the kitchen.
posted by different at 8:43 AM on April 17, 2007

1. Everyone writes down their top two seating preferences.

2. Permutations are attempted to see how many preferences can be granted without conflict.

3. Any leftover conflict is resolved with a compromise between those two individuals.

Without a system to go by, no family of five is ever going to reach an agreement that is fair to everyone.
posted by hermitosis at 8:46 AM on April 17, 2007

Response by poster: Caddis, etc. I'm head chef, which is why I sit closest to the kitchen - and this seat also happens to be directly opposite the father at the other end of the table. Someone in our family of 5 must sit at the head of our oblong dining table, unless we ban the extra 5th to the dungeon.

That said, what I'm really after is some matriarchal power - the more, the better, thank you.
posted by LadyBonita at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2007

The people who have to run to the kitchen most often sit in the chairs closest to the kitchen.
posted by acoutu at 8:50 AM on April 17, 2007

There are no formal seating rules for family dinners. (It's your family, do you really want to find a way to make things more formal?)

But if you don't want to take my word for it, check with Emily.
posted by amro at 8:51 AM on April 17, 2007

No chance of a King Arthur solution and get a round table?
posted by Abiezer at 9:00 AM on April 17, 2007

Yeah, don't these things just sort of happen? I was always at the side that was easiest to get out of--I assume because that's where they put me when I was a baby.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2007

Best answer: Formally (and formerly, since this is pretty old world etiquette), the man of the house sits at the head of the table, with the most important female guest on his right and the second most important on his left. The lady of the house sits at the foot of the table, with the most important male guest to her right, and second most important to her left. Places in between are filled with a slight nod to closeness to the host and hostess, but primarily based on who will amuse each other the most. Of course, in the case of a family of siblings, you might be better to place people such that they're near people who don't amuse them so much as fail to whack them over the head or throw peas at them.

If you're appealing to etiquette to get your kids to behave, words like 'important' are probably bad ones. But social standing amongst otherwise equal individuals is often divided by age, so you might place your daughter(s) around your husband and yours son(s) near you, left and right based on age.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:13 AM on April 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

Well played, jacquilynne!
posted by Alt F4 at 9:24 AM on April 17, 2007

I'll have to second the "anarchy at the family table" thing. In fact, when I was a kid it was a sit-wherever kind of situation. Still is when I go home. I was always confused when I'd go over friends' houses and they'd be like "Oh no, that's where [whoever] sits". I was like, really? It just seemed weird, from my point of view.

However, if you can't stand the free-for-all (and I assume that's why you asked the question) I say come up with an arrangement that's arbitrary, since any arrangement would be arguably arbitrary anyways, and just stick with it. There are many family traditions that are done simply because that's the way they've always been done.
posted by indiebass at 9:26 AM on April 17, 2007

That said, what I'm really after is some matriarchal power

I cooked this meal and I say we sit this way. When you prepare us a meal, we'll sit as you suggest.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:33 AM on April 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid, it worked this way:

One parent at one end of the table, other parent at the other. Whoever cooked was at the end closer to the kitchen.

Kids rotated through the other seats on a nightly basis.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:42 AM on April 17, 2007

I second the idea of changing it around once a week. You could even assign different jobs to different seats - one seat helps the cook bring the food in, one to help clear the dishes, and one to help wash the dishes. Or whatever works for your house.

The only structure we had at our table at family gatherings (when the cousins came over, etc.) was to make sure that lefties and righties were seated harmoniously - no lefties to the right of righties, and vice-versa. Otherwise, you bump into each other!
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 9:43 AM on April 17, 2007

Response by poster: FlamingBore, I have a weirdly strange family - we eat dinner/supper together nearly every day of the year.

Thanks Jacuilynne, you've made the seating etiquette very clear. It should amusingly screw things up for our family dining experiences and encourage more heathenish debate amongst my children. Thankfully, all amusement and annoyances will gleefully be quashed with my newfound Matriarchal Powers.

Accordingly, since have only sons, our seating arrangements, according to former and formal etiquette, should be:

Myself, the Grand Lady of the House, shall sit at the end nearest the kitchen, with my Eldest Son (he is also the Most Important, but please don't tell the other boys!) to my right. Our Middle Kind of Important Son would sit to my left (ha! poor child has to stay in the same seat as before!). And our Youngest Least Important Son will sit where he is most amusing or least annoying, probably in the dungeon. Master Father Host will sit where he damn well pleases.

If Grandpa visits he will assume the seat of Eldest Most Important Son who will be reduced to simply Not as Important as Grandpa Son.

If Great-Aunt Gertrude visits, she will sit to Master Father Host's right, because I find her teeth rather annoying and her personality amusing only after she's passed out from too much sherry.

If Master Father Host isn't in the picture, then I assume he must have a damn good excuse, and I will use my Matriarchal Powers to punish him as soon as the children have finished washing the dishes and gone back to being their proper heathen selves.

If the Whole Gang is over for Thanksgiving dinner, I will seat them at the nearest Chinese Buffet, open 24 huors, 365 days a year.

Thanks everyone!
posted by LadyBonita at 9:55 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow.. this thread is so weird to me.

I was in a family of 5. We just kind of had our seats. There wasn't any real thought to it, we just sat in the same place every night because that's just how it sort of fell together.

All this patriarchy / hierarchy talk is totally weird to me.. and maybe even mildly disturbing.

It was enough that we ate dinner together as a family, which many don't these days... we weren't concerned about seniority or some kind of hierarchal message with our seating arrangement.
posted by twiggy at 9:59 AM on April 17, 2007

when i was a kid, my dad would sit at the head of the table. mom would sit closest to the kitchen, on dad's left. as the oldest of three brothers, i got my favorite of the remaining seats on dad's right, and my younger brothers settled the remaining seats after that by themselves.
if you want to teach your kids economics, you can have them bid against each other for the remaining seats, with the money going to the accommodating kids who defer to their sibs. "what's it worth to ya ricky, 'cuz johnny here is willing to pay you $5/week out of his allowance for that seat, now raise him or fold."
posted by bruce at 10:10 AM on April 17, 2007

Response by poster: Don't worry so Twiggy, it's only AskMeFi.

Good idea jamaro. If Master Father Host ever increases my household allowance, I'll replace the oblong table with Abiezer's King Arthur solution. My 2nd, fall-back solution will be Bruce's bidding war. Every child needs to know how to master Ebay Poker.

I really don't see how using etiquette/manners, formal or former or otherwise, as the basis for establishing a 'who sits where' family rule/tradition/habit could be controversial. Sometimes parents get desperate, ya know? And kids love rules, just ask your mother.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by LadyBonita at 10:39 AM on April 17, 2007

I spent my childhood in France.
The whole seating arrangement thing was mainly about honoring guests.
The set of laws was pretty logical and easy to understand for everyone, including the kids. It was easy at home but it could get complicated at my paternal grandparents every Sunday for lunch. where there would be between 20 and 30 people around the table.
It starts from the parents (or hosts) who preside the table either from the single seat at the short sides (à l'anglaise: the English way) or in the middle of the long sides (à la française: the French way, that my grandparents and parents preferred).
Then it's alternate gender.
Then it's honor rank: the more a stranger you are to the family, the higher rank you get. Between equal rank, the older one is more honored. So a visitor friend would be to the right of my grandmother, and the eldest son in law at her left. But the third ranked male would be at the right of the woman seated at the right of my grandfather and the fourth at the left of the woman seated at the left of my grandfather. (It looks complicated but it's very simple once you get it.)
So it was not hierarchical nor sexist (patriarchal or matriarchal), just a simple way to avoid any hesitation, preferential treatment and/or conflict.
posted by bru at 10:45 AM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

My younger brother (the youngest) sat at the head of the table. I sat on his right. My mother sat on his left and my dad sat to the left of her. I'm not sure why, this is just how we always sat. Guests sat in the leftover seats.

If you are really having such a hard time with this I suggest you inject a little humor or fun. Maybe a spinner wheel to determine who sits at the head, or draw straws, or the first person to the table gets to pick their seat first. Or the youngest child gets to tell everyone where to sit. It seems silly (to me) to take etiquette so seriously at home.
posted by mai at 10:52 AM on April 17, 2007

Best answer: It seems clear to me, and I honestly can't see how any of the rest of you are missing this, that she's not taking etiquette seriously at all. She has a situation where the kids are squabbling and needs a solution for them. She knows it's going to be entirely arbitrary, but needs a glimmer of authority to make it palatable to the kids. The authority could come from 'oldest chooses' or 'alphabetical order chooses' or 'because Mommy said so, now shut the hell up', but it seems to amuse LadyBonita to be able to say 'Because that's how it's done, dears, it's etiquette, you know' when she hands out the arbitrary solution.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:17 AM on April 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh goodness, thank you so much for that reply Jacquilynne.

And bru, thank you also. Avoiding hesitation, preferential treatment and/or WWIII is my main goal. After first perfecting my Matriarchal Powers, of course.
posted by LadyBonita at 11:59 AM on April 17, 2007

In my family growing up, Dad sat at the Head, Mom sat at his side (whichever side was closest to the kitchen) and on dad's OTHER side the kids took turns for months at a time, based on who needed the most teaching on polite dinner behavior. So it wasn't so much a privilege to sit next to dad as it was a schooling opportunity to teach manners.
posted by othersomethings at 1:01 PM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

As an interesing post-script to this already settled question, my wife and I had the dubious pleasure of touring Hearst Castle (in San Simeon). Apparently, Hearst and his wife had frequent and long-term guests. They sat at the middle of the long sides of a long table (like bru mentioned). Recent guests sat nearest the middle and gradually moved towards the ends (away from the Hearsts) as their stay was extended. If you were there for too long, you'd be pretty far from the center of the table.

I guess that's one way of discouraging guests from overstaying their welcome.
posted by JMOZ at 1:43 PM on April 17, 2007

Just as another piece of anecodotal information, in my family it was always Dad at the head of the table and Mum in the first chair to his right. The kids then sat whereever they liked, but since I was the oldest, I laid claim to the (other) head of the table most of the time, although as I got older I realised that I couldn't see the TV from my position, so I moved into my brothers seat!

The only other place that I ever sat down at a formal dinner situation was my ex-girlfriends. There it was the same (Dad at the head, Mum to his right), although her father always got me to sit in the seat to his left (he made a point of it) and said it was so he could whack me upside the head if I said something out of turn (half-jokingly, but honestly you sometimes couldn't tell!).
posted by ranglin at 4:48 PM on April 17, 2007

When I was still living with my parents, and before all of my brothers moved out (when we all still sat at a table for dinners), my father sat at the head and my mother sat next to him, nearest to the kitchen. Next to her was the smallest child who needed assistance with eating.

These days when they have holiday family dinners, my dad sits at the head, my mother to his right (still close to the kitchen), his father sits on his left and his mother next to my grandfather. Then the rest of us stand around and look at each other wondering if anyone has any other kind of preference; I usually take the foot. I don't know why.
posted by rhapsodie at 7:04 PM on April 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

There were seven of us: mum at one end nearest the kitchen, dad at the other end. One young kid (me) next to a parent, the other young kid (my younger brother) next to the other parent and on the same side of the table so we were next to each other. That put us in easy reach to help if needed. The other three kids (my older brothers) were on the other side of the table. The oldest was in the middle of the other side because he was tallest and needed more leg room than the other two. This arrangement was also convenient for the adults to smack whomever was acting up.
posted by deborah at 7:20 PM on April 18, 2007

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