By now beads of perspiration spotted my brow. The dinner conversation was taking its toll. "Audrey, please stop yelling at the table... Audrey, please sit up... For goodness sake, take smaller bites... You are talking with your mouth full again... Didn't I say stop yelling?... Hey, get out from under the table... Put that dessert back until you finish your meal...Did you just spit your food out on the table?... How about saying please first...Stop reaching, you're going to spill your... Great, you spilled your milk all over the table... It is not funny, Audrey!"
I could feel the judgmental glares from the other guests piercing me and I could hear their disgruntled thoughts. Half were thinking, "Geez, lay off. She is just a kid and you sound like a broken record," while the other half thought, "For crying out loud, why don't you spank that little monster." I imagined the two groups both thought, "What a bad parent and what a miserable dinner party!" The pressure was taking its toll. I just wanted dinner to be over so I could hide myself.
Finally, it all came to a head. My lovely daughter was yelling down the table for the umpteenth time. By now everyone, including me, was sick of hearing my voice. So, I decided to casually remind her to quiet down by tapping her leg under the table. I stretched out my foot and gave a light tap. She didn't even blink – to excited to feel the nudge. I stretched out again and kicked slightly harder. Nothing. I was determined to secretly get her attention, so I slid down in my seat giving myself enough reach to give her a good solid kick. Unfortunately, the kick was very solid, a little too solid. Audrey gasped, her eyes welded up with tears. I held my breath. Then the flood gates burst open and she started to wail, "Mommy kicked me! Why did Mommy kick me?" She was inconsolable and I was utterly humiliated, so I threw in the towel. I smiled politely and excused myself. On the way out, in a last ditch effort to save face, I made a classic parental excuse for my child's poor behavior. Looking very puzzled I claimed, "I don't understand. She never acts this way – she is probably just overly tired. She hasn't had a nap today." Then I tucked my tail and left.
The Game Changer
Luckily, that was a long time ago. It is now my pleasure to take my children out with me. Everywhere I go I get genuine compliments on how well-mannered my daughters are. In fact, now if there is any embarrassment it is that my girls make their mother look ill-mannered in comparison. I attribute their dramatic transformation to a silly little game I came up with called, "The Manners Game."
The Manners Game is very simple. Each family member gets three Popsicle sticks, or other reward, to put on their place mat. Before the game commences, go around the table and have everyone recite a few "Table Manner Rules." After that, you are ready to begin. If one family member sees someone breaking a "Table Manner Rule" he gets to take one of their Popsicle sticks. Whoever has the most Popsicle sticks at the end of the dinner wins. My kids love this game. It is the only time they are "authorized" to correct Mom and Dad. You can make the game more fun by intentionally making a few "manner mistakes" and then pretending to be shocked and outraged when your children correct you. They will love it!
Of course, there are a few drawbacks. For starters, playing games at the table is poor table etiquette. So, you will want to explain that normally games are not allowed at the table during dinner time. The Manners Game is a special exception and can only be initiated by a parent. Also, remind them that ordinarily they are not allowed to correct adults. They may only due so during the Manners Game. When we first started playing the Manners Game we did not make a clear enough distinction. So, at a big family get together, my three year old assumed it was OK to go around spot-checking her aunts and uncles' table manners.
That said, overall this has been a wildly successful game. The game not only taught my girls table etiquette, but also gave them incentive to self-correct. Starting this game early, before bad habits are formed, will greatly increase your chances of being successful with the game. For this reason, I can honestly say that the two people with the worst table manners in our family are now my husband and I. Our bad habits have persisted for decades, making them much tougher to break and establish new ones. However, our girls seemed to master table etiquette the first time we played the game! We continued to play for several months and then slowly phased the game out. Now that our daughters have formed good habits at the table, I believe that they would have to work hard even if they wanted to revert to their old ways.
I hope the Manners Game works as well for your family as it has for mine. If you have some tips of your own, please leave a comment.
Check out my other posts on Manners: