"MADDIE, wait until everyone is served before you start eating."
Eight-year-old Maddie looks at you as if you were speaking a foreign language.
You and your husband are at the dinner table with your parents, your sister and brother-in-law, your nieces and your kids, eight-year-old Maddie and 11-year-old Simon. And as you watch your kids dig into their meals with no reference to the rest of the diners, you realize that they really do not have good table manners.
There's nothing like big holiday dinners to point out the need to teach our kids how to handle themselves at the table.
If you want your kids to star as table-savvy polite diners over the holidays, the time to start is today. Make it fun and educational. The kids don't need lectures. After all, they have the manners that have been expected of them. They will make mistakes. That's part of the learning process.
How often does the whole family sit together at the table to eat? If you are in the habit of grabbing food on the run, eating in the car or eating separately it's going to be a real challenge to prepare your kids for how to behave in a more formal dining situation. They cannot behave well if they are not taught and don't have a chance to practice.
Think about what it is that you want them to learn. Then without making it a lecture, quietly help them change their dining habits to fit with your picture of good table manners. Teach slowly and patiently.
When they eat with you at the table they will be able to see how you behave. Kids learn a lot by watching what adults do.
Try to plan to take some extra time at the meal so you are not always rushed. Relax, chat with the kids, laugh and enjoy.
Holidays are a time when your children's general behaviour is on show. Table manners are one example of behaviours that will be on show with friends and families.
It is unrealistic to expect your children to have good table manners when you have
company, but not when it's just the family. Likewise, you need to watch your table manners. Otherwise it won't work.
Good manners include a gracious acceptance of gifts. Teach them to receive all gifts as if they were special and wonderful, even if it's something that's wildly inappropriate. 'It's the thought that counts,' sounds hokey, but it is true. So they need to learn to thank people in person when they receive a gift. They learn this by watching you.
How do you respond when you're given a gift?
They also learn by being told. So practise with them before they attend any event where they are likely to receive gifts. Ask them: "What will you say to Aunty Hilda when she gives you a present?" Explain that it's not whether they like the gift, but recognizing that their aunt cares enough to bring them something, so they are thanking her for her consideration and love.
When gifts come by mail from friends and relatives I believe that an old-fashioned thank-you letter is important. I'd suggest that you schedule a time when all the members of the household write their letters. If you sit down with your children it's a family event and easier for everyone. Don't engage in any arguments, simply state that you expect them to write. Say something like, "It's now letter-writing time. I have a list of the people who sent gifts and what they sent, so let's get to it." If you really can't face the idea of regular mail, at least have the kids send a timely email.
You can help them by suggesting things they might talk about. Out-of-town relatives are interested in all aspects of the kid's life so talking about the school Christmas party or a planned skating outing with friends will be a hit.
Plan to take pictures of your daughter with the gift. It's a real bonus to include them or if she received money she can tell them what she's planning to buy.
Children who are too young to write can draw pictures. Have them draw a Christmas picture or one of them playing with the gift. Of course, the really small kids will offer multicoloured squiggles and lines and I guarantee their art will take a place of honour on the fridge of the recipient.
Good manners are a gift that will stay with your children throughout their lives.
Kathy Lynn is a professional speaker and author of Who's In Charge Anyway? and But Nobody Told Me I'd Ever Have to Leave Home. If you want to read more, sign up for her informational newsletter at parentingtoday.ca.