Teaching Table Manners to Preschoolers: When Did It Go Out of Style?

bad table manners

I had a couple encounters recently that really got me thinking about how we are teaching social skills to young children- or not. I was visiting a couple of my students at their child care programs, which I sometimes do, prior to their formal CDA observations.

The first visit was in a 2’s room, with eight children and two teachers. I arrived just before lunch and watched as hands and tables were washed and children were placed into those built-in bucket seats. The kitchen had delivered portion compartment trays with some kind of meat casserole, fruit, and vegetables. What happened next literally took my breath away.

Both teachers began bringing the trays over to the two tables. No eating utensils were evident. As each tray was set in front of a child, the teacher flipped it over, banged the contents onto the table, and placed the empty tray back on the cart. Huh? Gasp!

Messy Eating Fatherly

Then, the two year-olds did what you would expect two year-olds to do, given this opportunity- squish and smear and slap the table. They grasped handfuls of food and pressed it into their mouths and onto nearby children. I managed to maintain enough composure to ask one of the teachers why the food was served like this.

“Oh, they’ll just get it all over the table anyway, so we just dump it out for them.”

“So, you don’t sit with them, either?”

“Sit there? Are you kidding? Maybe on days when we have sandwiches, but not on casserole days.”

I realize it is in fashion lately, to suggest that mealtime be a sensory activity for children and to provide just such experiences when they eat. I have read several articles making the case for this as a “valuable learning activity,” but I am not swallowing this advice (sorry for the pun).

The second visit I made was to a professionally managed, employer-sponsored center. My student was an assistant teacher in a room of 4’s, with sixteen children. Again, I arrived just in time for lunch. (Lucky me!) The lead teacher boasted about how this center offered family-style dining to every age group, from 2’s through Pre-K.

Again, the kitchen delivered a cart full of food, this time in large serving bowls with ladles. The teachers placed the bowls on the two long tables and the children were told if they were hungry, they could wash up, get a plate and eating utensils, and eat lunch.

Apparently, lunch was not going to occur for everyone at the same time. Nor was there going to be a teacher seated at either table with the children. Some of the children opted to eat, and after washing, came over to the tables. It was then that the “family dining” began.

No one sat down. Ladles were grabbed, sometimes out of each other’s hands, and food was scooped and heaped on plates… more food than any of them would end up eating. There was reaching, pushing, spilling, shouting, and whining. One child was pushed out of the fray and started crying. The teachers were largely ignoring what was going on, except for a couple weak pleas from a distance to, “Eat nicely!”

The “family dining” experience I had been promised was more like the iconic cafeteria scene in Animal House. For the second time in a week, I found myself having to ask child care staff about their rationale for these out of bounds practices.

“We never make a child wait to eat and if we all sat down together, there would be waiting. We also let the children take what they want so they learn independence.”

Learning? OK. Let’s unpack some of this learning in both of the situations I witnessed.

Children who are given food on a tabletop are learning it is OK to play in it and use their hands to eat. They are also learning it is acceptable to touch other people’s food and other people while eating. Another side lesson learned might be to dump a plate on the table when it is put in front of them, because their teachers do this every day. Even if the families are trying to help them learn to use eating utensils and keep their food on their plates, these children are going to be confused by these mixed messages between home and school.

Children who are encouraged to eat at will, instead of with the group, are learning to eat by themselves. They will learn a lifestyle of grabbing some food and eating at their desk or standing at the sink, where social interaction and attention to healthy food choices or portion size becomes non-existent. I don’t want this for my grandchild- for ANY child.

When there is no adult participation or support, they are learning it’s acceptable to stand or run around while eating, to shout or whine at the table, to grab food, and to take items from others. I think we’ve all seen these children when dining out, haven’t we? Apparently they learned these lessons well.

Eating together as a family is, I suppose, a practice that is going extinct, with busy lives and fractured family schedules. But can’t we try to preserve it in some meaningful way in our Early Childhood programs?

A family (either the child’s family at home or his school family) sits down together, shares and passes food to each other, engages in pleasant conversation, displays some degree of self-regulation, and is attended by a responsive adult who models all of the above.

I may sound pretty old-school here, but I see value in teaching manners and common courtesy to young children. Too many children are growing up feeling entitled and only looking out for themselves. I encounter members of this “snowflake” generation in my college classes every day. These are people who have learned, from indulgence, lack of direction, and mixed messages, that their needs and wants supersede anyone else’s. They have trouble expressing simple acts of human caring and respect and I believe this can be a factor in many of the social problems we see developing today.

Even a toddler can, with practice, navigate eating utensils, keep most of his food on a plate, and keep his hands off other people’s plates. He can also learn to sit at a table with other children and an attentive adult, without having to be strapped into a bucket seat.

family dining

Learning these valuable life skills are worth the wait while food is being passed and served. I don’t believe any child ever keeled over from hunger while waiting for a serving of green beans to come his way.

Learning good table manners is part of learning courtesy towards others. If it starts at home and in school early on, from adults who think it is important, then children will learn it’s important, too.

Take time to sit with your children at the table, provide expectations for mealtime behavior, and encourage pleasant, amicable conversations. Don’t let “family style” go out of style.

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