Tuesday, March 10, 2009

When to start teaching table manners?

Following in yesterday's train of thought, I'm trying to think of what changes I might want to make to D's eating routine. The Tripp Trapp chair seems to be working out nicely-- D seems to like it, it's nice having him closer in to the table, and it's actually kinda nice not having to deal with that massive tray anymore. Things are a bit messier (his high chair kinda trapped most of the food that fell so most of it wound up under D's butt... now it falls straight down to the floor) and he has much more freedom to move and wiggle around. I'm not sure if the last one is a good thing yet.

So now I'm wondering when is it that I should start teaching and enforcing table manners, or really just overall dinnertime behavior. There's 2 things I've already been putting my foot down on-- intentionally dropping food onto the floor, and (now that he's eating at the table) playing with his plate or place mat. If he does either of these once I look him in the eye and give him a stern "No!" then if he does it again I'll end that meal (if he's playing with the plate but still seems interested in eating something I'm spooning to him, I'll take away the plate but keep giving him food with the spoon). He seems to have gotten the message about dropping food as he very rarely ever does it (on purpose) anymre. Still working on not messing with the plates, but considering he only started eating off a plate about a week ago anyway I'm pretty impressed with how he's been doing.

But now, what about other things, like how he often starts wriggling and turning around in his chair in the middle of a meal? He'll still seem hungry and interested in eating, but is squirming all around while doing so, turning around in his chair or staring and even trying to grab food that's fallen to the ground. Also, he'll sometimes start playing with his food-- squishing cheese with his fingers, dipping his hand in his yogurt. I debate between letting him have that experience with texture, versus teaching that food is not for playing with. I hate to cut meals short before he's full (he gets really whiny when he's hungry), and I don't want to turn mealtimes into a struggle, constantly having to say "don't do this" and "don't do that." But I also don't want to set up bad habits. It's hard to know what to expect of him, to know what he's capable of and not expect too much (or too little).

So I'm asking you guys, when do you think it's appropriate to address different behaviors at the dinner table? How much do you expect of a 1yr old kid? At 18months? Two years? Etc. I'd also love to hear suggestions for how to go about teaching/encouraging these things. Thanks! =)


  1. What about letting him "play" with the food at other times? He can experiment, feel the texture, but the setting will be different.

    Yes, I know it's wasting food, and that's bad. But it is a sensory experience... does that make it OK?

    If there were another time/place designated to experimenting with food, would that let him get it out of his system, so he won't feel the need to do it at the dinner table? Or is that teaching him that the behavior is OK, regardless of the setting?

    About the wiggling/turning around... I know this makes it difficult to feed him, but is he squirming because he's fussing, or is he just a wiggly guy? Because some kids just don't do sitting still. I know eventually he needs to learn to be a productive member of society and that will, at some point, require sitting still, but at this stage, if that's one less thing for you to fight/stress over, maybe it can slide. (If the wiggling bugs you, then correct it. But don't stress about correcting it because "he should" if it's not that huge a deal to you right now.)

  2. Oh I wish I knew! Finn loves to throw stuff on the floor - the one big problem I see with the Tripp Trapp is that without a tray the food does go on the floor, but we still love ours!

    We do say no, and if it happens 3 times we end the meal. I am so impressed you can give a placemat and plate to D, Finn would push it on the floor!

  3. I never thought of ending the meal. I figured that was just normal toddler stuff. Usually Eliza throwing her plate on the floor meant she was done. She doesn't really do it anymore. Now tih her at the table I am dealing with a bunch of other issues!!

  4. I'm trying to remember when I started table manners with R, and I don't think it was until she was closer to 18 months old. I do have photos with her food all over her face at 1 year old, so apparently it wasn't then. I think I started them about when she started day care, which was when she hit 18 months.

    As far as sensory experiences--I'd say teaching that food is not for playing but other things, like clay or goo, are for playing and not eating, would be good. You can give him the flour-based playdoh in case he decides to eat it and make cornstarch goo.

  5. I am in the same boat...

    Endi has been sitting at the table and we provide her with a spoon and plate. She still often throws them on the floor. She likes to say "uh-oh" as things drop, as I have heard that dropping things form a highchair is normal development, but when does/should it end? I am not sure. After 2 drops we put the object away, it is not a game. After reading Montessori From the Start, I reflect and think, "oops" when it comes to practical life work and meal time. But you know your child best and no matter what the books say we know our child and when to introduce developmentally appropriate actions/manners. I think about 15 months is when we will probably buckle down...she is moving from babyhood to toddlerhood...

    *On thing that I have found to help so that she does not get frustrated at the table (and therefore tossing stuff OFF the table) is teaching her signs about her food, so she can ask for things this way and have a better dining experience, for the both of us!

  6. Hi there! I have just found your blog through your post at Sew Liberated (loved it - thanks for the honesty), and I am so glad I did!
    As to the table manners, all I've learned from my 18 months first time mom's experience, is to allow my boy to be free within limits (like in other aspects of Montessori, but I am sure I don't need to remind you of that:). Our basic limits are simple - no dropping of food, or playing with food. If he does these things, I gently but firmly remind him that food is for eating. If it doesn't work I'm removing his plate a bit from him and tell him that I will give it back to him when he remembers to eat from it. Only if none of these solutions worked, I end the meal. I have to admit we've got that far only a few times. I feel that eating is a very gentle issue, so I try to be even more patient than usual. Our other rules are eating only at the table, no food on the floor, everyone sitting at his chair (and not on mommy or daddy's lap:)
    I do let my son exploring food as long as it doesn't turn into merely a game. I think this is very important considering the importance of the sensorial experience at his age.
    I don't worry about setting up bad habits - our sons are still so young, and they are right in the middle of exploration explosion. The second year is so full with the new discoveries and excitements. There is enough time to learn about manners later. Yet as long as we keep demonstrating good manners, I am sure that our children will absorb it uncontentiously, and it will find its way out of them when the time is right for them.
    Then you cannot expect things from your son that he is not yet developmentally ready for - like sitting quietly during the meal. He is a toddler (is he? or yet an infant?), after all:) Dinner is supposed to be a fun family meeting - laughing and socialization are so important.
    And last, but not least, I always try to remind myself one of the most amazing things that I love so much about Montessori - not to expect anything from my child, but just follow him on his path. It's one of the most difficult things in parenthood, for me at least. But still, it is so worth it.
    I hope I've managed to help you a bit. It is very nice to meet you. Looking forward to reading your future posts.
    Wishing Peace, Miri

  7. Anonymous12:53 PM

    We still let our 3 year old eat with a combination of her hands and utensils so as to avoid struggle and too many "rules" around dinner. We tolerate a certain amount of exploration (now with utensils, like cutting food into little pieces) as long as it's linked to eating, and not just play for play's sake. I agree with you about dropping food. I've never tolerated it and, further to the issue of playing with food, emphasize the rules that minimize waste of food. I also put my foot down regarding playing with objects at the table. When it comes to squirming around, as long as she remains in her seat and keeps eating and engaging with others at the table we're okay. She always asks to be excused and has since she was 2. Her grandparents all express pleasure at both what she eats and her behaviour at the table, for what it's worth, so I think we've found an okay balance. With a one year old I think certain rules can be enforced, but exploration is so important to a good relationship with food that a certain amount of play is good.

  8. Hi, I wandered over from Meg's page. We're a waldorf family with one four year old boy.

    Regarding table manners, while we always found it helpful to redirect really outrageous throwing etc, mostly at that age the best you can hope for is damage control. They're going to drop things on the floor, both intentionally (it's SO FUN! lets do it again and again and again etc!) and unintentionally. And if given messy stuff they'll definitely make a mess, so eventually I just adjusted my expectations and if a certain thing was just too harsh to try to clean up (for us it was rice--obnoxious to try to pick up) we'd just nix it for a while.

    We have the same chair and it gives them some liberation they didn't have before, which is super exciting for the little folks. It'll probably wear off to some degree, but again, if it's more of a hassle than a benefit you might try it later. I think we started using ours when our boy was closer to two, and he was ALL about getting up and down five billion times.

    For food getting dropped onto the floor, we found it *really* helpful to put a cheapo plastic tablecloth on the floor under his chair so at least once the meal was over it was easier to pick it up by the corners and shake it outside. And for the table, any mat that wasn't stuck down was going to be flung to the floor eventually (if it can be manipulated it's going onto the floor--who can resist doing something so dramatic!) so we found this mat invaluable! Actually we still use it because it's easier to pop it up and wash it in the sink than to wash the table, and the raised lip keep spills contained. http://www.kiddopotamus.com/p_tiny.php
    It can be used when you go out to restaurants or visiting too, which is cool, but we used ours at home mostly. The crumb catcher is great!

    But about teaching table manners, they have basically zero self restraint at this age and are totally motivated by impulse, so I feel it's best to lead by example and remove access to things that you decide are too messy. He will choose to imitate you when he's able. :-)

  9. Anonymous12:43 PM

    I agree with Allison, I think your expectations are too high for the age of your child. Taking away the food seems a bit of a harsh thing to do to such a small child who really, really doesn't understand not to do something at the same time as he can not control his impulse to do it.

  10. As an A-I guide, my experience tells me that grace and courtesy, at least the way you are thinking of it, comes later. Remember, this shouldn't be a watered down primary. Part of learning to eat is playing with it. Eating is supposed to be enjoyable. This isn't Victorian England, after all! Having said that, I think natural consequences is always the way to go. Can he climb in and out of the chair by himself? If so, he can start to pick up what he spills. This will get old for him. If he spills on the table, have him get a cloth (or give him one) to help clean up.

    Sometimes it may boil down to, "when you do this behavior it tells me you are finished" but I would really only use that occasionally.

    As Alfie Kohn says, and I agree (and I imagine Maria Montessori might, too), is that when a child is resisting/testing/struggling, etc. it often means boundaries need to be loosened rather than tightened.



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