Household Word: Please Pass the Manners

Q: Why does the turkey go “Gobble, gobble, gobble?”
A: Because he doesn’t have good table manners.

Usually, I don’t care how the food gets into my kids – as long as they eat. But last week, as my daughter entertained the family with a belched dinnertime rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” I decided that enough was enough. These kids need to learn some table manners.

After a summer of hamburgers, hot dogs and far too many nights of Chinese takeout, my kids have devised a hundred uses for disposable chopsticks, but are having real trouble telling the difference between a paper napkin and the bottom of their T-shirts.

As my mother used to say, “What would they do if they were invited to Buckingham Palace?” By the look of things, they’d express their appreciation by burping out “God Save the Queen.”

While my family is not expecting to dine with royalty anytime soon, we are hosting a house full of relatives for Thanksgiving (including great aunts and uncles) who may not be impressed with my children’s mealtime accompaniment or their creative use of chopsticks. I figured a few weeks should be plenty of time for my kids to brush up on their table manners and review the basic rules of civilization. I may have underestimated the task.

I know, I know, good manners should be used every day, and that if you only save them for special occasions, they get as dusty as your good china. But I’m hoping it’s not too late to wipe off the Wedgewood and clean up our act. Frankly, I don’t care if they know how to use a fish fork or finger bowl, but I would like them to be at least as well behaved as their cousins, who are coming for Thanksgiving and who are – according to their mutual grandmother – perfect.

I started by banishing belching and trying to replace it with appropriate dinner conversation.

“Did anything interesting happen to anyone at school today?” I asked around the table.

“At lunch Justin was imitating the teacher and I laughed so hard that milk came out of my nose,” reported 9-year-old Lewis.

Obviously, there’s room for improvement in the conversational realm. I made a list of topics to avoid at the table including: school lunches; descriptions of things that have come out of your nose, your friend’s nose or any other orifice; jokes that involve the word “seafood” (as in “Do you like seafood?” followed by opening a mouth crammed with chewed up dinner and the charming witticism, “See? ... Food!”); scabs; the symptoms of Ebola; descriptions of road kill alluding to what the dinner looks, smells or tastes like; and all non-verbal communication, including belching, gagging and retching.

A Dress Rehearsal

Now that we had outlined appropriate conversation, it was time to tackle a dress rehearsal. The next night, we ate in the dining room. On the good china. With multiple forks, candles and cloth napkins. And it was just a Tuesday. The first night of our new regime, I felt like Helen Keller’s teacher in the movie The Miracle Worker.

“Napkins on your laps!” I ordered as Lewis played matador with the dog. “No grabbing,” I barked as my daughter knocked over her water in a rush to reach the last dinner roll.

“Sit!” I commanded as all three kids danced and twitched in front of their plates. As dinner progressed, my list of forbidden behaviors grew. No tilting in chairs, slithering under the table, talking to the dog or touching the person next to you. No shouting, “I claim the last roll!” or using forks to catapult pieces of meat, vegetables or other edible or non-edible objects across the room. No humming, singing or playing with action figures at the table. No storing cooked vegetables in your cheeks and dashing off to the bathroom. No racing through dinner to get first dibs on the TV. No clinking glasses with cutlery, gargling with milk or coating your fingers with candle wax and then peeling it off and leaving a mess under your plate.

“You mean we have to just sit here and eat?” Lewis asked incredulously.

He looked so put out that I just had to laugh. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone saw the milk come out of my nose.

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Carol Band considers her children’s table manners a work in progress. Write her at

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