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Why Kids Have Terrible Table Manners
If your child can't sit on her bottom for more than 30 seconds, and rarely if ever uses a fork, read on.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,
I know dinner is supposed to be a time for family bonding, but in our house it’s feral chaos. My six-year-old can’t sit on her bottom to save her life, rarely remembers to use utensils, and wipes her hands on her pants instead of her napkin every damned time. Help!
Kids Are Gross
OK, I’m just going to admit that this question didn’t come from a reader — it came from me. A few weeks ago, I tweeted about my kids’ awful table manners, and I was flooded with responses encouraging me to write something on the topic. So here you go. You’re welcome.
Every night, I’m shocked anew at how hard it is for my kids to consume food in a way that is not wholeheartedly disgusting. But when I did a little digging and spoke with two therapists who work with kids on related issues, I discovered that quite a lot is required for proper meal etiquette — good core strength, shoulder stability, body awareness, and fine motor skills, among other things — and that these are skills that kids don’t often have yet. Moreover, I learned that when we make kids sit at an adult-sized table and use adult-sized utensils, we actually make mealtime much harder for them than it is for us. Honestly, it’s no wonder our kids are hot messes at dinnertime. But there are things that we can do to make them more successful.
Let’s start with why kids have so much trouble sitting still at meals. I asked pediatric occupational therapist Jaime Spencer this question and she said: Imagine if someone told you to hold a forearm plank for ten minutes. If you didn’t respond by laughing in their face or hitting them with a frying pan, you’d probably realize 20 seconds into the plank that you needed to shift around frequently as your muscles fatigued. “That's the same thing as saying to kids to ‘sit still’ and ‘sit up’ — physically, their muscles aren't strong enough to do that for that long. And so they automatically shift their body to get more comfortable to put other muscles in charge,” Spencer explained.
Then there’s the separate, but related, issue of why kids don’t like to sit on their bottoms. I swear to you that my six-year-old literally cannot sit on her butt for more than 15 seconds; her preferred position is the crouch, with her feet underneath her, which has more than once resulted in her teetering off the chair sideways. When I mentioned our bottom-sitting woes to Spencer, she asked me whether, when my daughter sits on her bottom, her feet are supported. I checked, and nope: When she sits on her bottom, her feet dangle about six inches from the floor.
To understand why that matters, Spencer encouraged me to consider what it’s like to sit at a bar (what are those again?) on a high stool that doesn’t offer any foot support. It’s uncomfortable, right? Among other things, you have to use your core strength to stay upright — that same damned core strength that kids already struggle with.
Also, Spencer noted, when kids crouch or kneel on their chairs, they are then positioned higher relative to the table, which makes it easier for them to eat. When an adult sits at an adult-sized table, the table usually hits them somewhere between their abdomen and chest. When I looked at my daughter at dinner the other night, I saw that the table met her body just below her armpits. Take a second to consider how hard it would be to use your knife and fork and, you know, eat normally if your plate was at armpit-level. Among other things, to use your arms to manipulate your utensils, you’d have to use your entire arms, rather than just the parts below the elbow.
Sensing a theme here? As it turns out, many of the problems kids have at mealtime stem from how they’re positioned. “Looking at seating is the very first thing that I do when parents are struggling with keeping their child at the table,” feeding therapist Jenny McGlothlin told me. Put another way, my six-year-old crouches and fidgets not because she’s trying to annoy or defy me, but because she’s trying to situate her body so that she can actually eat.
Let’s move onto utensils. To use a knife and a fork, a child has to be able to coordinate the left and right side of the body as they do totally different things. This is easy for us, sure — but we’ve had decades of practice. For kids who are still developing their gross and fine motor skills, getting one hand to do one thing, and the other hand to simultaneously do a different thing, is not a piece of cake (ha). “Knife skills are hard — they’re something kids continue to learn through their teenage years,” McGlothlin said, which definitely made me feel better.
I often bristle at the fact that my kids forget to use their utensils, too. But McGlothlin said that when kids are hungry, it’s 100% unsurprising that they rely on their hands. “The utensil is a middleman, so if a child is really hungry, and the utensil is making it slower for them, then they’re going to cut out the middleman and go straight for it with their hands,” she said. Plus, eating is a sensory experience, she added, and some kids want to touch their food to get a sense for its physical properties before putting it into their mouths.
Speaking of sensory experiences, some kids also have much less body awareness than others, and those kids really, truly might not be able to tell that they have jam/tomato sauce/yogurt/chocolate all over their face. Often, McGlothlin said, the messiest eaters are kids who under-react to sensory stimuli. These are the kids who drool a lot and may prefer spicy, sour or crunchy foods — foods that wake up their sensory system and make them feel more comfortable. (Pretty sure this includes my ten-year-old, who loves sucking on lemons, and who had milk all over his face after lunch yesterday.) If you find you’re frequently yelling at your kid to use a napkin and wipe his face, keep in mind that he really might not be able to sense that anything’s amiss.
The take home here, then, is that it’s perfectly normal for kids to have bad table manners. Thankfully, though, Spencer and McGlothlin said there are things parents can do to make mealtimes easier — and less disgusting.
Make sure your kids sit in a way that supports their body and makes it easy for them to reach and maneuver their food.
The next time you’re sitting at the dinner table and your kid is actually sitting on her bottom, observe her: Is she sitting in a a 90-90-90 position — with a 90 degree angle at her hips, knees and ankles? If not, brainstorm what you can do to get her there. One option is the Keekaroo booster, which has adjustable footrests. Or, place a stool in front of the chair for her feet to rest on. We started doing that with our daughter a few nights ago, and it is definitely helping her sit still.
It’s also important to make sure that your child is sitting up high enough, so that the table meets her between her chest and waist. If not, use a booster — and make sure, too, that your child is sitting forward far enough that she can her legs over the end of the chair. You can put a styrofoam wedge behind her to help with that.
Also, consider having your kid use kid-sized utensils, which are much better suited for small hands. One brand McGlothlin likes is Grabease. If your kid is school-aged, you can have him use salad forks instead of dinner forks, which are a little smaller and more manageable.
Don’t do everything for your kids. Practice makes perfect!
Look, I get it: When it takes 45 minutes for your child to cut his chicken, and half of it ends up on the floor, it’s sooooo much easier to cut everything up for him. And some days, when you just can’t deal, it’s totally fine to do that. But also be sure to give your kid opportunities to practice cutting food himself — and allow him to make a mess while doing so. Using a knife and fork “is a motor skill, just like riding a bike or playing the piano, and they have to practice it,” McGlothlin said.
Your kid can also practice these skills in low pressure situations, without using actual utensils. To practice stabbing food, for instance, McGlothlin suggested giving kids toothpicks along with easy-to-stab foods like cantaloupe. And give kids plenty of opportunities to do other fine-motor activities, too — painting, writing, scissoring, beading. The more fine-motor practice your child gets, the better he’ll become at politely eating his food.
When correcting your kids, do it in a way that doesn’t shame them.
Mealtimes can be hard with kids for so many reasons (stay tuned for a future newsletter on how to stop fighting with your kids about what they’re eating). Yet the last thing we want is for our kids to associate breakfast, lunch and dinner with stress and shame. We want mealtimes to be a positive, enjoyable time, and to do that, we need to be careful about how we engage with our kids about their etiquette.
But how? McGlothlin suggested using passive language — instead of No, you need to cut that piece of broccoli before you eat it, you could say I wonder if you cut it up before you stab it, if that would be easier. Another option is to save some of the etiquette conversation for after the meal. In a blog post on the topic, McGlothlin explained:
I like the feedback ‘sandwich’: you tell the child something they did well, something to work on, and then another positive comment. That way, the criticism is sandwiched between two positives.
“You did such a nice job of using your napkin at dinner! It would be great if you could keep your feet to yourself while you eat so you don’t upset your sister. She was so happy that you helped her get her milk!”Make sure your expectations are age-appropriate.
Also, set things up in ways that will make it easier for your kid to succeed. Instead of getting mad at your child for wiping his hands on his pants and yelling Why didn’t you get a napkin???, hand out napkins at the beginning of each meal. McGlothlin also suggested allowing your kid to keep his napkin next to his plate, rather than on his lap, where he can more easily see it — and remember to use it.
Manage (by which I mean: lower) your expectations.
If you’re constantly screaming at your kid about her meal etiquette, ask yourself whether you might be expecting too much. “There’s just things we expect of children that really put a lot of pressure on them, but that aren't necessarily something they can manage,” McGlothlin said. Sometimes (often?) we as parents expect our kids to master skills before they actually have the capacity to; we also expect our kids to know to do (and not to do) certain things even though we haven’t actually explained our expectations and why we have them. The first time my son used his left hand to push things onto his fork, I’m pretty sure I balked, but then I realized: If you’re a kid, why wouldn’t you think it was fine to use your hand to push things onto your fork? I mean, you are still using your fork, after all.
This also goes for how long we expect kids to sit at the dinner table once they’re done eating. Long ago, my husband and I realized that mealtimes were much more enjoyable if we allowed our six-year-old to be excused when she was finished, even if we were only four bites in. She simply couldn’t sit there for any longer, and asking her to try only ended in tears (hers and mine). Take a minute to think about the small concessions you can make that will make family meals a more enjoyable, less screamy experience for everyone.
Do you have a question about your kids’ challenging or perplexing behavior? Reply to this post, and I will try to address your question in a future newsletter. I’ll keep you anonymous and may edit your question slightly.
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