Why table manners can wait

The widespread opinion on table manners is that children should start learning them right away, and holding off on teaching children any kind of manners definitely sounds contrary to popular wisdom. It might even contradict your own experience as a child! But realistically, a lot of table manners can wait until Baby is a little bit older. Here’s why it’s probably okay for Baby to put their elbows on the table for at least a few more months.

Toddlers have a short attention span

It’s not that Baby doesn’t want to listen and follow instructions. It’s just that while they are this age, their attention span makes it difficult to pay attention and follow directions for long periods of time. It’s not a bad idea to enforce the most basic rules, like no throwing food or screaming at the table, but more complex ones are difficult at this age, and even if you start teaching them, there’s a good chance they won’t start to stick for a while.

Certain rules hurt more than they help

Some of the rules that you learned growing up are probably best left in childhood. Take the rule about not being allowed to leave the table until you’ve cleared your plate. As it turns out, this isn’t really a good way to teach children how to self-regulate their appetites. A better version of this rule would be to let Baby leave the table once they are full.

Did your parents make you sit at the table until everyone was done eating? This is another rule that’s especially difficult for toddlers, and will only serve to cause a mealtime ruckus. Save this one until Baby is older. A final unhelpful rule: no toys at the table. In reality, toys can help toddlers enjoy mealtime more (as long as they aren’t loud or disruptive for the other people at the table), so let Baby bring one or two to the table if they want.

Exploration is how toddlers learn!

The biggest reason why parents should hold off on table manners is because toddlers need a chance to be, well, toddlers. This means they need to be allowed to touch their food, and really explore it. Obviously, no parent wants pasta flung against their wall, but you can understand why Baby might want to grab pasta with their hand, or squish peas with the end of a fork.

It’s just fun, and Baby learns and gets comfortable with things by exploring and having fun. As adults, we’re a little stuffier about how we interact with food, but that doesn’t mean that toddlers have to be (of course, if you do keep getting pasta stuck to your wall, it might be time to serve Baby a few small pieces at a time, to minimize damage, and make sure to tell Baby that throwing isn’t okay at mealtime).

The big (messy) picture

Mealtime can be stressful, and parents have enough on their plates just teaching their toddlers to feed themselves. Baby has a lot of time to learn table manners, but right now, it’s okay for them to act their age and eat in an unconventional way. It’s more important that Baby gets balanced nutrition and the experience of sitting with other people at a table for a meal. Aside from the most basic manners that allow your family to eat together in peace, it’s totally acceptable to hold off on teaching them table manners until they are a little bit older.

  • “What are some of the developmental milestones my child should reach by two years of age?” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Jun 2009. www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/pages/Developmental-Milestones-2-Year-Olds.aspx. 
  • “Picky Eaters.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Nov 2015. healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx.
  • “Eating Out Without Reservations.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Nov 2015. healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/nutrition-fitness/pages/Eating-Out-Without-Reservations.aspx. 
  • “Toddlers at the table: Avoiding Power Struggles.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2017. kidshealth.org/en/parents/toddler-meals.html#cat161. 
  • “Movement and Coordination.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Aug 2009. healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/pages/Movement-and-Coordination.aspx. 
  • “Disciplining Your Toddler.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, Jan 2013. kidshealth.org/en/parents/toddler-tantrums.html#.

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