Is mealtime chaos at your house? Try these three effective tools for teaching your toddler manners, and reclaim a little sanity at dinner.
Remember way back before you had kids and you could sit down to a pleasant meal and enjoy intelligent conversation with that amazing guy you married? Remember when you could take your time to eating without someone wanting food off your plate, when you had both hands free to eat, and when you didn’t spend half of dinner time making airplane noises?
I know, that memory is starting to get fuzzy and dim, right?
If your house is anything like mine, meal times can be a little tricky. Between picky toddlers who flat-out reject the meal you just spent an hour (or 15 minutes) making, babies who want to be held (or fed) right as you take your first bite, and kids who just can’t stop playing long enough to eat, dinner can feel–and look–like a three-ring circus.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “Get your feet off the table!” in the past year.
Several months ago, I decided that it was about time to start teaching proper table etiquette to my sons. After all, I can’t expect a toddler and preschooler to understand my requests to “have good manners” if I don’t teach them what manners are.
Now, I’m not talking about keeping your napkin in your lap and scooping your soup away from you (who does that, really?). I’m talking BASICS, here. I’m dealing with a two-year-old and four-year-old, so we are starting at ground zero. Eventually I’ll teach them which fork to use for which course at a fancy restaurant, but today I’m just trying to get them to use the fork at all.
To create our family’s table manner rules, I looked at the problems I was noticing (like feet on the table and licking the plate like a puppy), and I started to categorize them. In the end, I came up with three rules that I felt like encapsulated the major behaviors I wanted to improve. Here’s what I decided on:
Our family’s three rules of toddler table manners:
Sit up properly.
Use your utensils, unless you’re told otherwise.
Use an inside voice.
That’s it. We do remind our kids to use other good manners we’ve taught them (like saying please and thank you) when we’re at the table, but these three are our manners specific to eating. I’ve found that rules work best when they are simple, few, and positively state what you expect children to do. Especially with kids as young as mine, any more than three rules is too hard to teach, remember, and enforce. So we keep it super simple.
As long as we’re talking about making rules, here are my three rules for effectively implementing rules: (Rules about rules…my hyper-organized, Type-A brain is so happy right now!)
How I teach toddler manners:
1. Keep rules clear and concise
I learned in my career as an educator that the key to teaching rules is to make sure that they are simple. You want the basic rule to be short and sweet, so it’s easy to repeat and remember. Make sure you use vocabulary that your children will understand, or make sure to define new words (like “utensils”) for them.
Making three simple rules is a great start! However, next you’ll need to clearly and specifically define your rules so that your kids know exactly what it expected.
2. Give examples & practice correct behavior
When I introduced the rules to my boys, we talked about what each rule would look like and sound like. I gave them specific examples, like these:
- “Sitting up properly means that your bottom is on the chair, and your feet are down. It means your body is close to the table so that food doesn’t spill on the floor or your clothes while you eat.”
- “Using your fork means treating it like a tool to help you with your food, and keeping it away from other people.”
- “Using an inside voice means using a voice that allows us to hear each other talk. We’ll save screaming and yelling for when we’re outside at the park.”
Helping kids picture (and practice) the desired behavior with specific directions like this helps them be more successful at following the rules. Also, as you explain your expectations, try to focus one what you WANT them to do, rather than listing off a bunch of “NO” commands.
3. Create natural consequences for failure to comply, and be consistent.
Learning new behaviors is a process, and kids are not going to improve all their bad habits immediately. We still have to remind our kids regularly of our expectations, but it is so helpful to have common ground that has already been established to refer to. When my kids break a manners rule, the first time I will gently remind them. “Remember to use an inside voice, please.”
If they fail to comply still, I will explain the consequence for continuing to misbehave: “If you choose to yell, you will need to leave the table until you are ready to use a quiet, inside voice.”
I choose my words and my consequences carefully. I try to make the point that THEY have the choice of how to behave, but they will receive the consequence for whatever they choose. Hence, “If you choose….then…” When choosing consequences, I try to keep them as logical as possible. For example, if you lean back in your chair, you lose the chair. If you are poking people with your fork, you lose the fork. If you are yelling so no one can talk, you will be removed from the table until you are willing to be a part of the family conversation. Learn more about natural and logical consequences here.
My kids are still not perfect little angels at the table. We’ve got to be realistic in our expectations of two- and three-year-olds, after all. However, I feel like we’ve made progress toward less-circus-like dinners on the whole, and at the very least they know the expectations, and we have a common vocabulary to discuss them when correction is needed.
How have you taught your toddler manners?