“Thank you for supper. My tummy is full. May I please be excused?”
Our four-year-old announces this at the end of every dinner together. I have drilled the courtesy into him for years now and consider the dinner-time finale a big parenting win. But the shenanigans that precede it? Yikes. LEGO figurines always seem to join us for dinner, there’s squirming and standing on chairs, interrupting and reaching! Forget his little brother who, at 15 months old, has made a hobby out of launching his food across the dinner table and on to the floor. They’re so little, I always rationalize, when I find myself wondering if we need to devote more time to teaching proper table etiquette.
But according to etiquette coach Jeannie Vaage, they aren’t too young to learn the basics. In fact, she argues, the earlier the better when it comes to learning proper table manners. We reached out to Vaage ahead of holiday dinner season with relatives for a crash course in table manners.
Laurel Gregory: Why is it important to lay the foundation for good manners when your children are young?
Jeannie Vaage: Well, we don’t want to give our children any excuses because of their age. They can handle what they can handle. But as an etiquette specialist, and all of my colleagues agree, at two years old there are a couple things that you can encourage your child to do. The first thing is don’t start eating before the chef, whether it be the mom or the dad. When that person sits down and picks up their fork you can say, “OK, now we can start to eat.” It sets the tone of the meal and secondly, it sets the tone of — there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. The next step would be perhaps not to slurp and on we go. Pass the salt and pepper, please. Those are the little things. You are not going to teach someone to do the napkin etiquette quite at two but when that starts to come up at five, you have already laid the ground rules.
LG: How would you guide children through a family meal?
JV: The first things to remember is when dinner is called, they are up on their feet and approaching the table. They should never be called twice and if that’s the case, maybe mom and dad should have a little talk on the way home. That is showing respect. If they have been there for a while, go and wash their hands… It shows that they are preparing for the meal. When they approach the table they should sit down and sit still and not fidget. That playing time is over.
Do not touch anything on the table until whoever made the dinner sits down because they will be well-finished and the chef hasn’t even started their dinner. That’s the first thing.
Don’t interrupt…and listen to the adult conversation and contribute when you can. At the end of the meal, be sure to wait until almost everyone is finished. And then ask to be excused: May I please be excused or may we please be excused? Yes? Alright. Napkin on the side of the plate, tucking your chair in and let the adults continue the celebration.
LG: Describe the proper etiquette during the meal.
JV: Let’s talk about passing, for example. If something is not in front of you, like within your reach, it’s in front of someone else. You might say, “Laurel, would you mind passing the salt and pepper?” Now, if the salt and pepper is three people down, the right way to do it is to say, “Would you mind asking (that person) to pass the pepper and salt?” That person passes it to the next person and then passes to you. And they put it on the table. Salt and pepper is always placed on the table, it doesn’t go in the hand. That goes for bread, butter, gravy and all of that.
LG: What are the worst offences you see among children at the dinner table?
JV: I think starting before the person that cooked is the biggest one. I believe that even at lunch when mom or dad is making macaroni and cheese, don’t start until (they have) sat down because they will be finished before the cook comes. That goes for when they have guests. A child can say, “Don’t start until my mom sits down.” The child that doesn’t know that, you can see on their face they are a bit embarrassed they don’t know that, but they will know it for next time. The other thing is no hats. No hats at the table. Reaching across the table… no reaching. And leaving the table without saying thank you. Those are simple, simple things that go everywhere as your child goes to someone’s home. That is what they are demonstrating. If it’s regular routine, it’s not like they are making it up or they have to recall how to do it. It’s just natural and then everybody comments about how great their manners are.
You can see Jeannie Vaage’s other holiday etiquette tips on her blog at VIP Protocol.