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Toddler Tips

Table Manners

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 3, May-June 2006, pp. 128-131

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My three-year-old son, who has a healthy appetite and a reasonably varied and wholesome diet, will not use a knife, fork, and spoon. Instead, he insists on using his fingers. How have other parents encouraged the use of utensils, and when will we be able to teach him better manners?

Mother's Response

It is great that your son eats a varied diet and enjoys his food. The ability to use cutlery is not dissimilar to the ability to use a pencil; we would not expect a three-year-old to be able to write his name! At the moment, your son probably finds it is just more efficient to use his fingers. Young children love to imitate other members of the family, so encourage his interest in using cutlery by eating together and displaying good table manners. Praise him if he starts to imitate your behavior.

At age three, my daughter, Laura, was given her own small knife, fork, and spoon set one Christmas with her name on, which she enjoyed using. When she was five, we bought some new matching "everyday" cutlery for the family to use. She was very taken with this and insisted on using the new set just like everyone else, despite its larger size. As with learning any new skill, practice makes perfect but requires time and gentle encouragement.

Sue Upstone
Haywards Heath Great Britain

Mother's Response

First, don't pressure your child to use utensils during meals. This is a new skill. Often children learn new skills through play. Allow the child to choose which utensils he will use, either by picking them from what's available in the silverware drawer, or perhaps purchasing a set especially for him. Then practice using them through play. Children love to pretend, so pretend to cook dinner, sit down at the table, and eat. Through this type of play you can show him how to hold utensils.

Another thought is that hand to mouth movement is a developmental skill. Even if a three-year-old knows how to hold and use a spoon or fork, he may not be able to sustain the movements through an entire meal. In that case, offer finger foods at the beginning of the meal when he may be too hungry and unable to wait to get the food to his mouth with a utensil. After the edge is off his hunger, hand him a spoon to eat a soft food that would be hard to eat with fingers. Or, reverse that order. In any case, don't expect him to use the utensils through the whole meal with all the food on his plate.

Lastly, expect that learning to use eating utensils is a process. It takes time to learn any new skill, and there will be days when he is not able to do it and days when he can. Over time he will use a knife, fork, and spoon because he sees that everyone else uses them. You may also notice that once he really learns how, he still lapses into finger-mode at home, and yet can use better manners when out in public.

We hope these suggestions help you remain calm during mealtime and enjoy the social occasion of meals with your son.

Ft. Lauderdale Toddler Group
Ft. Lauderdale FL USA

Mother's Response

This situation reminds me of two things. First, a book that is now out of print called When Your Child Drives You Crazy by Eda LaShan. I remember the author saying that sitting at the table and enjoying a family meal and understanding table manners are difficult for children to do until they are around seven years old. I sometimes think that society wants our children to grow up too fast and to be mini-adults before they are finished being children.

On top of that, there is also the issue of coordination. Using a knife and fork, or even a spoon, is quite a complex task. I think sometimes we forget just how difficult it is to master these things. Some children may have the coordination to do these things at a young age, but many others don't. Forcing a child too early may put them off learning to use utensils.

There is also the matter of culture. About half the world's population eats with their fingers! Using utensils is a very artificial way of eating. I have found the best way to teach manners is to demonstrate the behavior you want. Always sit at the table with your son during meals and always be polite and follow your chosen culture's tradition. Gently encourage, but don't expect too much too soon. I had a son like yours. He is now nine. He still has coordination problems and will use a spoon only for yogurt and rice, but for the rest of his food he still uses his fingers.

But we now have the presence of a well mannered and interesting boy at our table, and he enjoys eating with us and taking part in the family conversation. This is quite a change from a year ago when he would either eat as fast as he could to get away or not even eat at the table in the first place. And we did this all without any anger, temper tantrums, or coercion. When my son comes to the table, I know it is because he wants to be there with us, not because he was forced to be there. For me, that is something that is far more valuable than the custom of using a knife and fork.

Jennifer Skillen
Glos Great Britain

Mother's Response

One thing that has helped to encourage my children to use utensils is to allow them to pick out a special plate, cup, fork, and spoon with their favorite design or character from the store. That way, when mealtime arrives, they are excited to use their own special items. We keep them in a low cabinet so they are always accessible.

I don't think that I have ever seen a grown person refusing to eat with a knife and fork. Three-year-olds really like to assert their independence. Typically, the more you push them to do things your way, the more they will rebel and cause you a lot of stress and frustration. Sometimes, you have to pick your battles. Usually the best route is the easiest one—leading by example and cheerfully encouraging him to use good manners. If it becomes an issue when you eat out, consider only ordering finger foods (chicken fingers, hamburgers, tofu dogs, for example) and explaining why these foods are different. Good luck and remember, "This, too, shall pass."

Nicole Pope
Crestview FL USA

Mother's Response

What made my children's table manners tolerable for me was getting child-size cutlery, and accepting it if they used a spoon and fork rather than a knife and fork. Fingers were still always favorites, and I had to be quick with a damp cloth.

At three years old, your child may be old enough to help make some rules on what is and isn't acceptable to eat with fingers. A banana or a slice of bread is okay, but shepherd's pie isn't. And some things are okay to eat with fingers if out and about, but not if you're at home. This means that parents will have to stick to the rules, too! It also probably means that meals have to be eaten at the table, not in front of the television because it is difficult to use a knife and fork balancing a plate on one's knee.

Thinking about this led my wandering thoughts to an implement which you rarely see these days. In my youth, young children were sometimes given something called a "pusher." It's a utensil that is a cross between between a spoon and a fork. This type of utensil maya be easier for your son to use.

A member in my local LLL Group who was trying to improve her children's table manners in public used to occasionally take them to a motorway service station to eat. This gave her children the opportunity to practice their manners in public, and she didn't have to worry too much if their eating habits left something to be desired. She knew the chances of ever seeing any of the people there again were slight.

Helen Butler
Bedfordshire Great Britain

Mother's Response

One of the most amusing and educating times my son has had was when he invited his close friend, Alpha, home for tea. Alpha is from the Ivory Coast, West Africa and goes to the same school as Jack. I made pizza, chips, and baked beans as we didn't know what he might like. He completely ignored the knife and fork and proceeded to squash the chips into a wider shape and use them to scoop up the beans from his plate. It then occurred to me to ask if he would like some bread. He said yes and then tore the slice of bread into strips and continued scooping up the beans. My children thought it looked fun and copied Alpha's lead. We had a very messy table and three happy children!

I guess I'm saying that most foods can be mopped up with different varieties of bread à la other cultures. It also occurred to me that a child can be four or five before a right/left handed preference is noticed, so using conventional cutlery can be quite difficult.

Denise Slater
Cardiff Great Britain

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