How do I teach my toddler proper table manners, you ask. How do I teach him how to keep the food off his bib, keep his mouth closed, or stop wolfing down the edibles? How do I train my toddler to be not as messy? When you look at the way that little monster shovels food into his mouth, dumping half of it down his bib, you wonder how he will ever learn to eat in such a way that he can show his face at a dinner table among respectable folks.
Don’t panic. It won’t be as hard as it seems; in fact, you can expect your toddler to learn a great deal by osmosis if he’s around people—you, for instance—who eat their food nicely. It’s something that happens naturally and gradually as your toddler grows up. Don’t expect it to be a completely smooth process, though, and don’t expect your toddler to be able to figure it all out—or to have the motivation to be neat—without a bit of age-appropriate help and guidance from you, the parent.
We can send our children to school to learn to read, we can send them to college to learn advanced Calculus, but table manners school is something that needs to begin at home. You can search for a tutor: “teach my toddler table manners, please!” and pay them top bucks, but your child still won’t learn as well or as naturally as if he had learned in the home setting from his first teacher, you.
Yes, whether or not you like it, you are stuck with the job. It’s not an impossible one though. I teach my kid table manners in four major ways:
Eating with the toddler may not be fun, and it may not be convienient. He may be so messy that it turns you off food altogether, or he may have so many needs that you are up and down the whole meal.
But that time eating with mom or dad—or preferably, both—is very important for your toddler’s social development as well as for his table manners, so do what you can to make the sacrifice whenever possible. You can teach junior that he doesn’t need everything he wants the minute he asks for it, and arrange the table ahead of it so that the things you’ll most likely need you can reach without getting up.
You think you have good table manners—but half of it is, you know your environment. You know how to behave when you’re out with a select group of friends in your city’s finest restaurant, and that’s good. But when you’re starving and you grab a double cheeseburger to go at a drive through window, how do you eat that? Your toddler watches you just as closely during your frazzled, starved moments as doing your peaceful measured ones, and he doesn’t understand inconsistency—except as a license to choose the lower road himself.
A young toddler won’t understand a conversation about manners, and it’s best to just let him watch you and learn how to maneuver that spoon. As your toddler grows and becomes conversant, you’ll want to have gentle conversations about the nice way to eat. Point out how nice people eat, and applaud your child whenever he does something particularly well—eat a bowl of soup without spilling, or munch a piece of bread with his mouth closed. Keep it all positive; toddlerhood is not the time for table manner diatribes.
Special dinners are a nice way to continue that positive ‘manners’ vibe. Set the table pretty; perhaps with candles, flowers, and your best silverware. Tell your toddler you’re going to have a fine banquet, and tell him there are special rules about how people at banquets. Explain them simply, and then suggest a contest: who can eat the nicest, banquet style, throughout the meal.
Try out these ways I teach my toddler, and you’ll find it’s easy to teach your toddler, too!