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Teaching table manners to a 12-year-old

post #1 of 5
Thread Starter 

Hi Mamas,


I'm looking for advice on how to help my 12-year-old DD learn some table manners. She lives half-time with myself and my DH (her step-dad for the past 3 years, although she has known him as my partner since the age of 3), and half-time with her dad. I've modeled good table manners myself all her life and tried to gently teacher them to her since she was a toddler, but she has always reacted by getting defensive (i.e., if I remind her to use a fork rather than her hands, she gets mad at me). In the interest of keeping harmony while we adjusted to many changes in the last few years (my remarriage, a couple of moves, a new school, etc.), I've kind of laid off a bit. But we are in a good harmonious place now, and I think it's time. Her table manners are not really age-appropriate, and I don't want her to get in a situation at a friend's house where she feels embarrassed. So here are the things that are bugging me (and her step-dad):


-- She eats with her hands quite a bit 

-- When using a fork, she won't use a knife as a dam or to push the food -- she'll use her fingers

-- Instead of sitting properly on a chair, she "hovers" near the table or lounges on the chair quite a ways back from the table

-- She creates massive amounts of crumbs that get all over her chair and the floor (or the sofa if she's having snack in the livingroom -- we don't allow snacks anywhere else in the house but right now the living room is okay) and have to be cleaned up


I think one issue is we have different behavior modeled at mom's house and dad's house. Her dad is a huge slob, but oddly enough, he does have good table manners in terms of how he uses utensils, says please and thank you, etc (he had this stuff drilled into him in boarding school). However, as far as I can tell, they eat every meal at the coffee table in the living room and their home environment is often quite messy/grungy. In our home, we're trying to create an atmosphere of (I hate to use the word "gracious", it sounds so Martha, but...) harmonious family life with regular family meals at the table, being considerate of one another, picking up after ourselves, etc. We want her to participate, and we also want to equip her for life beyond the bounds of our home. 


One idea we had is we can tell her we've seen ants in the house (a white lie), and that we are all on "crumb patrol" and that necessitates our being careful with crumbs and cleaning up after ourselves. We can sweep off our own chairs, the floor beneath our chairs, etc. together after dinner. That could take care of the crumb issue.


But what about not eating with her hands? That one has me stumped. One the one hand (no pun intended), I can appreciate the naturalness and sensuality of eating with one's hands and why that might be desirable (I'm remembering a very popular art major in college who always ate with his hands -- apparently it drove women other than myself wild). I come from hippie stock -- I get that. On the other hand, the idea that in this culture it's way more socially acceptable to eat with utensils seems to me to be so patently obvious that it almost feels absurd to bring it up with her! And I want her to at least have the skills to participate seamlessly in mainstream culture, which she can later reject if she so chooses. orngtongue.gif I might have a little baggage here, since I was raised by free thinking folks and not taught much in the way of table manners -- I learned them myself by observing my friends' behavior, but not before a few embarrassing moments. 


Any ideas? Thanks in advance, if you do!

post #2 of 5

What about making a chart with pictures outlining exactly what you want to see from her, and then letting her earn a reward -- such as a pizza night eating in front of the TV. (I believe there are some foods that it is fine and good to eat with our hands in the living room, but that it is a very short list).


Anyway, by making a chart, it would get you out of the way of on constantly reminding her -- you could just show her the chart at the beginning of the meal and let it go. If you have the reward for the end of the week something that is highly motivating to her, she will eventually get the hang of trying to get enough points per meal.


I know some people are against rewards because it lowers intrinsic motivation, but she has ZERO motivation for this right now. Eventually, she will have motivation, but at that point it would be nice if she already had the skills and could just use them.


Using her hands to eat is a habit and it is the  comfortable way to eat for her. Learning to do it differently will require effort (just like if I had to start using chop sticks all the time, it would take a lot of effort for me). I think appreciating that this is really a skill and really takes work on her part might help.


I also think that having her help with setting the table and cleaning up afterwards is appropriate, as long as it is done in a positive way. Most points toward pizza! (or whatever would be highly motivating to her)

post #3 of 5

What if the reward was dinner at a very fancy restaurant? Practice the skills needed for that experience?


I know a foster family that has the "table rules" written with permanent marker on a vinyl table cloth. They put away the tablecloth when they have guests, or when no kids need it. But when they get a new kid, or kids seem to need reminding, they put it out. Avoids some nagging. And makes the issue less personal.

post #4 of 5
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the great ideas, Linda on the move and mamarhu!


I love the chopstick analogy -- that helps me understand it from her perspective. This is something she can learn, but it's sort of a bother to learn it when she already has this other method/habit that works perfectly well for her (and she just doesn't understand the limitations of her method yet).


I like the idea of working toward a reward of some sort, whether that's a pizza and movie party in the living room, or dinner at a fancy restaurant. I think rewards have their place and I'm not opposed to them -- the problem I've realized is that DD is not motivated at all by external rewards, never has been (she's even rejected the idea of allowance). She tends to get motivated by her desire to please others and by peer pressure. For example, she moved out of my bed and into her own in kindergarten when she realized her entire class was going to have an overnight in a cabin with her teachers -- so she set up her own sticker chart and gave herself stickers for each night that she stayed in her own bed, leading up to this event. It's been the same for her with every other development. So maybe she needs to feel some intrinsic sense of urgency about this. Perhaps we should have a dinner party at our house and invite some of her friends and their parents? Then she can see how her friends conduct themselves at the dinner table -- at our dining room table, in our home. (Clearly, she's already seeing this at her friends' homes, but maybe it's not as meaningful out of context at others' homes)? Maybe we could even talk ahead of time about how we're all going to practice our table manners so we'll be ready for the big event?


I also love the idea of the chart and having the rules written right on the tablecloth! We had a lot of charts when DD was smaller and they worked great (especially if she created them herself with my guidance). The problem is she's going on 13 now and is getting into the eye-rolling stage of development... checklists, charts and reminders can easily feel childish and condescending to her and then I get the eye roll and the "mom, please", or she gets defensive, and then the opportunity is lost.  


At the same time, she does want to please me (she'll set the table, clean her room, etc. when I ask her to) and she also responds to imparted wisdom -- stories from my own childhood. So maybe I need to somehow let her know this is important to me, and tell her about some of the times I was embarrassed by my own not-so-great table manners growing up.


The good news is, the "crumb patrol" idea is working like a charm! She's been doing a great job keeping the crumbs to a minimum for fear of an ant invasion. Maybe a little bit of fear as a motivator is not such a bad thing...


Thanks again for your great ideas, they really helped me think this through!

post #5 of 5

Both of my children developed much better manners after a couple weeks of summer camp.  Nothing like a little peer pressure and seeing how their bunkmates responded when they didn't eat as expected.  For my daughter it was also the motivation to get past the "I can't do this myself can you do it for me" stage as well.

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