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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Back To The Table

Why IS that fork on the LEFT?!?
When I saw this Twitter post by @dimplemonkey, bemoaning the lack of table manners in kids today (or the parent's inability -- or is it unwillingness?) to teach their children table manners, I started thinking about the difference between dinnertime as it is for most families now compared to when I was growing up in the avocado green-burnt-pumpkin-colored decade known as the 70's.

There's no such thing as Couch Manners.

I think one reason parents aren't teaching their kids table manners now is mainly because they aren't at the table.  They're sitting on the couch in front of the TV. You have to have a table to teach table manners.

I guess eating in front of the TV started when "TV dinners" gave our society "permission" to do so. I'm old enough to remember when "TV Dinners" were still a fairly new invention. The whole rectangular dish was in aluminum, with aluminum foil on the top, not plastic film. You cooked these in the oven instead of the microwave. One reason was that aluminum doesn't work in the microwave, but the primary reason was that microwave ovens hadn't been invented for home use yet. Because they were "TV Dinners," I think we ate them in front of the television once. Apparently it didn't work out too well. We ate TV dinners at the table after that. Everything's hazy now, but I think we probably had some kind of food-related-living-room disaster.

When I was a kid, dinner was respected. Not just in our family, but pretty much everybody else's family too. I remember it was my job to clean off the table and "set" the table -- get all the plates, forks, spoons, knives, glasses, etc put in their proper positions.  I always thought it was weird that the fork was placed to the LEFT of the plate, since most people are right-handed. Also, why did we need to put a knife and spoon next to each plate, if we primarily needed only the fork? Looking back, I realize that was so nobody would need to leave the table to get a spoon or a knife.

Another thing that Just Was NOT Done was answering the telephone during dinner time. Try enforcing this one now. Several phones go off and everybody reaches into their pocket for their own personal phone. That is, if they're not texting. That is just rude.  When I was growing up, our family was one of the few I knew in which someone might answer the phone during a meal. That was because my father sold real estate, and understand this was in the days before Caller ID, voice mail, or even answering machines.  If my father missed a call, it could mean missing a sale, and since that brought the money that supplied the food to put ON the table, that was the only exception. Problem was, without Caller ID, we never knew who the caller was. So the phone would get answered, and if it was for anyone but my father, we'd have to immediately tell the caller we couldn't talk but we'd call back after we ate dinner.

I was taught that if I was playing at a friends' house and I became aware that they were preparing for supper, that I was to excuse myself and go home. This was another sign of respect for others and mealtime. I'm not sure if parents teach this to their kids anymore.

Even though I was raised to place importance on table time, everybody seems to have busy schedules these days, so it's become very easy to just let everybody grab their food and sit on the couch to eat while watching TV. If we can eat at the table 3-4 times a week, I'm pretty happy about that.

The problem with watching TV and eating (besides the potential for bad eating habits we've all heard about) is that when everyone's facing toward the same thing -- the TV -- you don't notice your son eating with his mouth open and using his shirt front as a napkin. And who cares about elbows on the coffee table? We can be fabulously unaware that our children (and ourselves) are horrific slobs. We very well could be slouched on the couch watching the glorious Royal Wedding with BBQ sauce dripping down our chins and potato chip crumbs on our fat bellies. Now that's classy!

We (and this includes myself!) have to realize that someday our child will be older and go to a friend's house or a restaurant to eat. Maybe it will be a date. Maybe it will be an important business dinner. So it will be important for their life, and teaching table manners is something that is free and can even be fun to do.

How to get kids excited about eating at the table

Even a 3-year-old can help set the table. It's fun for kids if you hold a special dinner (we call it Fancy Dinner Night). During Fancy Dinner Night, we use all the best dinnerware and the kids get to drink their Kool-Aid out of wine glasses. They really love that! You don't have to worry so much about breakage if you don't spend much on the glasses. They can very often be found at yard sales for a dime or a quarter.

If you give the kids the idea nudge and a little advance warning that it's going to be Fancy Dinner Night, you can set them up with some paper and crayons or markers to create "Menus." While you're cooking, you can advise them what they need to list and how to spell it. They can make up the name of the "restaurant." A Post-It note pad is great for allowing them to pretend to be wait-staff and take "orders."  All this is creative and improves their writing.  It keeps the kids busy and excited about the upcoming meal and of the cook's way (for the most part).

It works for us, so you might want to try it. People get face time with each other and bad manners are corrected.  But to this day, we haven't figured out why the fork is put on the left side of the plate, since most people are right-handed.

Now, about that smaller salad fork and extra spoon...

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