Table Manners for Kids

Help kids polish their etiquette before a holiday dinner or family gathering

Family dinner table
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Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of two grandparents serving Thanksgiving dinner to their adoring family doesn’t tell the whole story of table manners on turkey day.

You can’t see the teenager text messaging his buddies under the tablecloth. You don’t see a tween looking perplexed at the silverware, wondering which fork to use first. And where’s the toddler who’s throwing a fit because she wanted the purple sippy cup, not the pink one?

Thanksgiving isn't the only holiday when table manners for kids come into play. All kids could brush up on mealtime etiquette before a dinner gathering. Here are some tips.

Basic Table Manners for Kids

On the drive to dinner or a few days before, go over some basic expectations for manners with your child.

  • First and foremost, they should say “please,” “thank you” and “may I.”
  • “Please pass the cranberry sauce.”
  • “Thank you for dinner.”
  • “May I be excused?”

Except for very young kids, children should be expected to use good eye contact when talking with adults and should answer questions cheerfully instead of acting withdrawn.

School-age children and up should offer to help the host when you first arrive, and then offer to help clean up after dinner is over.

Age-Appropriate Expectations

For very young children, it’s developmentally difficult to sit still for long periods of time.

You can take some measures ahead of time that might keep them at the table longer, such as bringing a booster seat so the child feels comfortable or putting out Crayons and coloring pages to distract them once they’re done eating.

But do yourself a favor and relax if your 3 year old wants to play in the next room after just 10 minutes (or five!) at the table. The child isn’t trying to misbehave; she’s just acting her age.

As children grow older, your expectations should change.

There's a fuzzy time period during the preschool years when kids begin to use good table manners ...

and then regress. Practice two or three skills you want them to use, such as saying please and thank you, but don't expect them to have a perfect performance on Thanksgiving, especially if you've just begun teaching etiquette at home.

School-age children and older can sit through the duration of the meal, although there might be a point when the adults won’t mind excusing the kids, depending on where the conversation is heading.

Pacing Themselves

As Thanksgiving approaches, you might need to tell your children to eat more slowly than they normally do. Teenagers are notorious for shoveling in their food, but they’ll be practicing good manners if they pace themselves with the other guests and don’t ask for seconds before Aunt Judy has even had a chance to taste her turkey.

The Food

Kids can be finicky eaters, but they should be expected to try most of the dishes served. They don’t need a heaping portion; a few bites will do.

More importantly, they should maintain an open mind and a positive attitude as they sample the dishes. “Do I have to?” and “Yuck!” shouldn’t be tolerated at the dinner table, so warn your kids ahead of time of your expectations.

A few of other quick tips:

  • No one should start eating their food until everyone has been served, and even then it’s a good idea to pause in case someone is preparing to say a blessing.
  • When food is served family style, it should be passed from left to right (or counterclockwise).
  • Kids should place their napkins on their laps at the start of the meal.
  • If someone asks for the salt, the person closest to it should pass both the salt and the pepper.
  • Never reach across a table for something. Address the person closest to it and say, "Uncle Charlie, could you please pass the rolls?"

Set Some Other Ground Rules

A few rules should apply across the board.

  • No mobile phones or other electronic devices at the table.
  • No hats.
  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
  • Wash your hands before coming to the table.

Around the holidays and throughout the year, many communities offer children’s etiquette classes through their parks and recreation or other programs. It might be worth your time and money to register your kids for a lesson.

You might also start a ritual with your family where once a week—perhaps on Sundays—dinner is formal. You can eat it at home or in a restaurant, and everyone should practice their best manners throughout it.

But try not to focus too much on “the rules” of etiquette, like which fork to use when. The bottom line is that kids use good manners when they’re comfortable and confident. They’ll mumble to adults and act defensive if they’re embarrassed or feeling awkward. Build up their self-assurance by practicing social interaction often, and your kids will use good manners without having to think about it.