The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
Emily Post once wrote, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.” We think about manners in quite the same way in the Montessori classroom. While our environments are spaces within which children’s autonomy is protected, those freedoms are limited by the natural boundaries that occur when we think of ourselves as members of a community. Living in community means thinking about how our choices impact the people around us. For young children, whose development often interferes with their ability to think of other people first, this is encouraged by formal lessons in Grace and Courtesy.
One of the most complicated Grace and Courtesy lessons helps to establish table manners. Learning to sit patiently at a table, to contribute to conversation, and to eat gracefully are all challenging skills for children to develop. Just like any skill, though, they are best adopted through modeling and practice. Think about your home meal table as an opportunity to practice table manners before you adventure to a restaurant together. Anticipate challenges when you are at a restaurant or public venue so you can help your child to navigate through them in a way that reinforces his or her understanding of appropriate table manners and is sensitive to the feelings of other patrons.
At home, remember that meal times serve a number of different purposes. They address the practical need for food, but they also allow time for the family to connect, to talk with each other and to share a common experience at least once in their busy days. Make time for family meal and be aware of the lessons you teach by your own modeling there. Put aside the newspaper or your telephone and, instead, model gracious behavior. Make eye contact when you’re listening to other people talk. Wait until they are finished speaking before you respond. Chew your food politely. When your child gets wiggly or loud or impatient (as he or she may well do!), phrase your expectations in positive terms. In other words, avoid describing what your child should not do and, instead, describe what he or she should. Rather than saying, “Don’t talk with food in your mouth,” try, “When you are finished chewing, you can tell me your story.” Rather than saying, “Don’t grab food from your sister’s plate!” try, “If you’d like another serving, you may say, ‘Please may I have some more?’” If your child has not yet mastered table manners, you should expect that part of your contribution to the meal time will be in modeling positively the habits you hope your child will adopt.
In restaurants or other public venues, it can be more challenging to encourage children’s manners. As parents, we may feel more pressure as other patrons notice our children. Our children may be more stimulated by the new sites, sounds and smells of the restaurant. If we’re sharing a meal with friends, the joy of those friendships can interfere with the social restraint expected in the venue.
First, stay patient with yourself and your child. Use an even quieter tone than you might at home, speaking softly to your child rather than calling him or her out publicly for missteps. Remember to describe your expectations in positive terms, reminding your child that, “In restaurants, we speak more softly,” or “Please remain at your seat until the meal is over.” If your child seems antsy or impatient, identify something for him or her to focus on, like a new conversation with you or a game of noticing things in the environment. You might open a new open-ended topic for the table to discuss, or help direct your child’s attention to something in which he or she can engage without leaving the table. Simple conversation starters may include, “Tell me about the work you love most at school,” or “The nicest thing about my day today was…. What was the nicest thing about your day today?” Simple table games can help build patience, like “I Spy.”
The ways we hope our children will behave require a complicated juggling of space and stimuli. By modeling patiently, quietly and consistently, your expectations for your child’s behavior, your child will have a concrete example of what to work toward him or herself. Most importantly, remember that, until your child has mastered table manners, supportive, patient modeling is more important than your own adult conversation. For the time being, when you take your child to a restaurant or public venue, expect it to be a learning opportunity for your child rather than a special treat for you. Eventually, you’ll be able to enjoy meals with your child as a gracious and courteous contributor. Those days will come sooner if you take some time now to focus on helping your child to master the rules of etiquette.