Across the table from me, she carefully peels the crusts from her bread, squishes the piece into the palm of her hand, places her other hand on top of it, rolling it into a ball. Her masterpiece complete, she opens her mouth and drops it in, chewing passionately. Her companion on her right, jabs her fork into her whole chicken strip, picks it up and begins to nibble on the strip while twirling the fork in a circular motion. Suddenly, I’ve lost my appetite.
No, I’m not seated with a group of toddlers. I’m a cabin leader at camp, in charge of a group of fifth-grade girls. All week long I’ve reminded them to put napkins in laps and chew with closed mouths. Now they mockingly hold up their pinkies, when they remember to use their utensils, as a way of showing me I’m much too particular about how they eat.
But am I really asking too much? Just where have all the manners gone? I have a few theories.
We are a nation of fast-food consumers. And how do we eat most fast food? With our hands! You won’t find too many children or adults using silverware to eat a burger or a slice of pizza. So when faced with a knife, spoon and fork, is it any wonder kids are confused as to their purposes? Can’t I just pick it up with my hands, roll it into a ball if necessary, and eat it that way?
Another theory is the time we don’t spend eating together as a family. I spent two years interviewing high school seniors as part of an assignment I had for a newspaper. I asked the same set of questions to each student. One question was, What is your favorite time with your family? And while some mentioned a memorable vacation or outing, the vast majority responded: dinnertime. If it isn’t a priority in your home, maybe it should be. What better way for your kids to learn table manners than from your example!
We lead as hectic a schedule as most, but we eat most dinners at home, at the table, without the television to distract us. My boys have learned how to properly set a table and how to pass food to others. We don’t get up once we are seated until we’ve been excused. And while this might mean we eat at odd hours of the evening—or night—it’s a priority for us, no matter what time we eat or what’s on the menu. I can confidently send my children out to a restaurant or over to a friend’s house for dinner and know they will not embarrass themselves.
I also know that as a parent, my plate is pretty full. Not my dinner plate but my things-I-have-to-do plate. And some might argue that they have enough to worry about in this business of child rearing without having to teach an etiquette course in their home. But I say to that, the earlier you teach, the less damage control you’ll have to do later.
At another reporting assignment, I covered a group of students who were preparing to enter the job market. Their school had set up a lunch at a local hotel and hired an etiquette coach to critique their manners. Many companies today will take a candidate to lunch or dinner as part of their interview process. They are not just being hospitable; they want to make sure their future employee will represent their company well.
So the bigger picture might show you: Teach your kids their table manners, or they might not land a job and one day move out on their own. If that’s not motivation for teaching manners, I don’t know what is!