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Table manners; I know I expect too much but…

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table manners
The sight of this place setting brings joy to my heart. It really does. Pic credit below.

Am I alone in thinking it’s hard to teach a child good table manners? For a brief moment I am going to let my guard down and confess that it’s an occasional cause of marital disharmony in this household.

I, you see, was raised in a household where exemplary table manners were expected from a very, very young age. By the age of five I put my knife and fork down properly after every mouthful in a v-shape, never used my hands and never put my elbows on the table. If I ever passed the port bottle in the wrong direction, well, it was 100 lines and a night in the dog’s kennel for me.

Okay, I lied about that last bit. You get the impression though, table manners were taken very seriously when I was a kid. Oh, yeah, and the dog didn’t have a kennel. His bed was next to the Rayburn so he had the warmest spot in the house.

Such a big thing was made of table manners that it’s just second nature to me. I want my kids to follow my example simply because it was ingrained into my very being. In fact I was probably being lectured about it while in the womb.

Don’t get the wrong impression. My wife has very good table manners, but she has a more relaxed attitude.

Not surprisingly, Toddler Adams eats like a toddler. She will use a spoon or fork but quite a bit of her food still makes it into her mouth via her fingers. No great surprise bearing in mind her age, she will grow out of it.

With Helen, however, we have reached an impasse. She’s quite capable of using a knife and fork. She can even squeeze peas onto her fork and deliver them to her mouth perfectly, although I know for a fact this only happens when I’m sitting right next to her. Even so, she has some very fixed habits that I’m struggling to deal with.

You’ll note I say “I” and not “we”. This is because my wife’s work hours are so long that I have to take care of the evening meal. We only really eat together en masse at the weekend. As a result, it’s largely my responsibility to teach table manners.

Helen will do a very good job of cutting up her food. Once she’s cut everything up on her plate, she will forget about the knife, put the fork into her right hand and eat Mediterranean-style.

I really don’t want to come down her too hard, but I seem to be constantly reminding her about elbows being on the table and she often gets up from the table during meals. For her age, this is probably quite normal but compared to my upbringing it’s a million miles away (could I be a bit damaged? Oh probably, but it’s just the way I am).

There’s an added irony here. As I have alluded to in the past, I have French heritage. On the odd occasion I get to eat with French relatives.

Have you ever seen a group of French people enjoy a meal together? Compared to my upbringing, it’s like feeding time at the zoo. Seriously, the French approach to table manners is completely different.

In France, you enjoy the food, enjoy the company and let the rest of the world hang. A table should be covered in bread crumbs and spilt gravy. Elbows should rest on the table and the loud discussion of left wing politics and family scandal is always encouraged. If the previous points are not achieved, the meal will be considered a failure.

I know Helen’s table manners aren’t that bad. I know there are many years ahead to iron out any bumps. I’ll also admit that I’m a victim of my own upbringing. My expectations of how a six year old should behave at the table are probably far too high.

I have to face the fact my children and I have very different backgrounds. When I was Helen’s age I was the only child in the house and lived in an extended family with four adults. They all piled in and taught me table manners and with no other kids around, I was the focus of their attention.

My kids are in a nuclear family where the burden falls on me and I have to split my time dealing with the two children. I guess it’ll be a while while until they both eat like graduates of a Swiss finishing school.

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Pic credit; Hopefulromntc. Sourced from Wikpiedia and reproduced under Creative Commons agreement.

12 thoughts on “Table manners; I know I expect too much but…”

  1. We had table manners drummed into us as well as children (although maybe not to the extent you did). My OH is obsessive about correct use of knife and fork (he tells me off for shovelling rather than turning the fork over and pushing food onto it, even when it’d be more efficient and less messy to do it my way), and he’s always been the one who keeps a check on the nephews and niece when the whole family eat together.

    So poor N doesn’t stand a chance. However, although he’s very good with cutlery, and can push food onto his fork with his knife, he’d rather get us to cut up his food, and just use his fork. I’m fairly relaxed about that at the moment. However, he’s a nightmare for fidgeting, swapping chairs etc. We can tell him forever, and he won’t stop. But when we eat out he’s much better, so I guess that’s the bit that’s on show. Hopefully by the time he’s started school, he’ll be better at attempting to cut up food.

    On an aside, I don’t cook spaghetti because I hate the way the OH eats it, and don’t want N to learn the same way. We were always taught how to spin spaghetti on our forks (with or without the aid of a spoon), and I would say I’m really proficient and neat at that. The OH cuts up his spaghetti. Oh how I detest that.

    1. Ah the old spaghetti trick. I may be mistaken, but I believe the Italians place it in their mouth and simply bite off whatever does not fit so it falls back on the plate. There is no spoon turning (I’ve only been to Italy the once so am no expert).

      Sounds like N has a good tutor. I know I found it harsh growing up but as an adult, wow am I glad it was pummelled into me!

  2. I am Nigerian woman living in England. My husband is white. And like you, he has concerns about eating with the right knives and forks, sitting up right, etc etc.
    I am more relaxed about it. I believe as long as they are enjoying their food and their fingers are clean, we are good.
    I grew up eating with my hands and it has not hindered me in anyway.
    Table manners can be learnt when the children are a bit older. I think for now, the enjoyment of food is paramount.

    1. Interesting response Yvonne. A lot of people are saying enjoymoent of the food is more important. It’s a very valid point when the children are young.

  3. I think some of this is important. I hate to see (or hear) anyone eating with their mouth open but I’m not so bothered by the fork in the right hand method, at least for some meals. MY mum has a real thing for using forks with your dessert, to help the food onto your spoon but I think that’s very old fashioned these days.

    E is dreadful with her eating – it’s all hands if she can help it. Sometimes she start being interested in forks ad spoons and then lose concentration. I think for now I concentrate on her actually eating and enjoying a range of things that I’m just happy she has anything at all. Her dad gets more upset by her table manners.

    My sister asked for some cake forks for her wedding present which I thought was a massive faff but I have special antique cutlery for fish so I think we’re all just a bit mixed up these days.

    1. Och, the whole using a fork for desert thing. What is that about? Yes, I was taught it and I know how to do it but it is soooo pointless.

      I’m sure we’ll get there in the end with our respective children.

  4. Oh my god are you actually my husband? We also have a daughter called Helen who eats like and animal and I also work overly long hours although I am usually home in time for dinner. Our Helen has worse table manners than her 3 year old sister and has an irritating habit of getting up from the table or just sort of drifting away from her chair during meals. It drives my husband mad. Like your wife I have a more relaxed attitude – I really think their manners will improve with time as long as we continue to set a good example.

    1. For the avoidance of scandal and gossip. let me confirm I am not your husband! I know manners will improve over time, I just get paranoid about bad habits starting at a very young age. Thanks for commenting.

  5. We have a loved one (very loved and admired) in our family who shares your passion. I felt compelled to offer another opinion… of course I arrived at this 15 year old post for a reason—googling “husband is too strict at the table.”—/ insert “more relaxed wife.” And hello 2020 worst year ever.

    The drive to pass down family traditions including strict table manner adherence is noble, and embedded into the very core sense of worth and family acceptance of many from an early age… I would argue that while you joke that you would be subject to a night in the dog’s kennel as a child, of course that didn’t happen, but you actually did feel that way.,, on some level… Is that OK?

    I am mom… virtual schooling and cleaning and working from home full time …planning and cooking. I do a good job and always put a healthy interesting meal on the table. No one is a picky eater.

    Might I suggest the “fork and knife police” are just causing more harm than good? I mean, our family is well mannered by any reasonable expectation, and the constant correction leaves me, and the children, unable to relax and enjoy our meal. It also leaves my husband feeling ganged up on as we rise to defend each other (of course I should support my spouse but sometimes it’s hard to bite my tongue).

    I just feel like throwing my hands up. How can we strike a reasonable balance?

    Perhaps focusing more on conversation skills, and less on the placement of the milk glass, would teach our children more about empathy and bring the family closer together during these crazy times? Table manners are just a part of my husband’s soul. How can we save family dinner???

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