One of our favorite family movies is Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animated Wes Anderson film about a well-heeled fox who steals chickens from three very nasty farmers. In one scene, Mr. Fox sits down to breakfast in a shirt and tie, has a polite conversation with his wife, and then noisily scarfs down his food like the wild animal he is.
That would not be tolerated at the Evans house, where my wife, Susan, has an acute aversion to noisy eaters, and where she wages a relentless campaign to raise two children with good table manners. In today’s society, that job has gotten harder, but it’s not exactly a new challenge. As Fred Astaire once said, “The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.”
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They’re certainly not going to see them on television (which should obviously be turned off during dinner), so it’s up to parents to set the example. With apologies to Emily Post, here are nine rules of the family dinner table:
1. Turn off your cell phone. Same goes for iPods, iPads, laptops, or anything that beeps, buzzes, chirps, or diverts your attention from the family. You’re there to have a meal and a conversation, not to check your email.
2. Wait for everyone to be seated before you start. It’s the oldest rule in the book, and one of the best. The last person to sit is usually the cook, and she deserves your respect. So does your brother or sister. It’s not a shared meal if you don’t start and finish it together.
3. Put your napkin in your lap. It should be the first thing you do when you sit down.
4. Chew your food quietly. This is a hard one to get through to a hungry kid, but it’s critical, especially if you ever want them to get beyond a first date. A founder of Random House books, Bennett Cerf, called good manners “the noise you don’t make when you’re eating soup.”
5. Don’t talk with food in your mouth. It’s gross. You’ll probably spit something out by accident. And there’s nothing you have to say that’s so important it can’t wait.
6. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Why not? Well for one thing your Mama said so. But in my book it looks like you’re guarding your food, not to mention the fact that you’re likely to break the table.
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7. Don’t touch your food. Corn on the cob? Fine. A roll? No problem. But don’t use your fingers to push food onto your fork. That’s what your knife is for.
8. Wait for everyone to finish before you get up. Not everyone eats at the same pace, but everyone should finish at the same time. Family dinners are a team sport, not a race.
9. Thank the cook. Even if the “cook” was Mom or Dad heating up a pizza, a simple “thanks for dinner” goes a long way. Especially if you want them to cook for you again.