You know your preschooler wasn't raised in a barn but how do you convey that to anyone that eats with her? Chewing with his mouth open, eating with her hands, burping, the list goes on and on. It's no wonder that dinner time in many houses where an under-5 year-old lives becomes a cringe-worthy event for most parents. The good news is, teaching your preschooler manners is not a difficult proposition.
Ready to learn and eager to please, most preschoolers will be very receptive to introducing table manners to their dinnertime routine. The key is in your method. Focus on teaching a specific manner one at a time so your child doesn't become overwhelmed and confused.
Before you start, it's important to remember that you are your child's best role model and anything you say or do is likely to be repeated by your mini-me. Make sure you are practicing good manners at the table. By setting a positive example yourself, your preschooler will soon be displaying behaviors sure to make even Emily Post proud.
What Are Manners?
If you tell your preschooler that you want him to practice good manners when he eats, it's likely he won't know what you are talking about. Explain that manners are a way of showing kindness to the other people at the table, whether he is eating at home, in a restaurant or in some one else's home. Say that manners are rules for the table and it's a way to show everyone, including mommy and daddy what a big kid he is.
Before Dinner Begins
Good manners start before you even reach the table. First step -- hand washing. Talk to your child about washing her hands and how she should do it before every meal and snack. If your child is under 5, this might be something you want to help them with. In any case, kids should be scrubbing with soap under warm water for about 20 seconds (have them sing the ABCs or "Happy Birthday" twice). To reinforce this behavior, make sure your kids see you washing your own hands before you eat. In fact, join them at the bathroom sink before you sit down.
If a prayer or blessing is part of your dinnertime routine, explain to your child what you are doing. Tell her that once the prayer is finished then it will be time to eat but while you are praying there is to be no talking or eating and that he should sit quietly. If your child helps say the prayer, be sure to practice it with him ahead of time.
At the Table
There are lots of teachable moments while you are dining. For instance, if your child reaches across your plate for the potatoes, say something like, "I'm glad you are hungry, but next time remember to ask for the food and I'll be glad to pass it to you." Then model the behavior yourself.
By age 3, your child should be eating with a fork, but sometimes they do regress. Plus, it is confusing -- some foods are OK to pick up -- think corn on the cob, chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers -- while others are definite "no's" -- rice, peas and applesauce. Don't assume he should know better, just gently point it out if he's made a mistake. "Daddy does a great job of using his knife and fork, why don't you try that instead? It might be easier for you."
You may also have to teach your child to use a napkin instead of her sleeve or shirt. By age 3, she should be done with bibs and be able to wipe her hands and face, but be sure to show her as well.
When your child is done eating, make sure they sit in their seat until you say it is OK. It may be hard for a little one to sit through until everyone is finished eating, so as long as he's eaten enough to your satisfaction, let him go do something else. Teach him to say "Thank you for dinner," and show him how to bring his plate, cup and utensils over to the sink.
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