Table Manners

Archived Q&A and Reviews


4-year-old Leftie's table manners

June 2013

my almost-4 yr old son is left-handed and we have made no effort to train him to use his non-dominant hand when eating, ie, when he attempts to use the knife (poorly at this age), we haven't made him use his right hand as is dictated by formal rules of etiquette, nor do we have him hold the fork in his right hand, ala ''american rules''. this has never even been a topic of conversation in our house, as neither my husband nor i care particularly about such things. i'm mainly concerned with the very basics of table manners at this point, such as not throwing food!

anyway, my sister, who is currently staying with us, pointed out that we should be teaching him to eat ''properly'' for his own benefit. i kind of feel that a left handed person should be able to reverse utensils for their own comfort and ease of use. her argument was that if we start now, he will easily learn the ''right'' way (pun intended, or is this even a pun since it is actually obviously the origin of this phrase!?) and thus not have poor table manners all his life. what do others think?

for those of you who want to point out the rudeness of my sister preaching to me about table manners while she sat at my table, eating my food (and currently living rent-free for a prolonged period in our guest room), not to mention offering unsolicited parenting advice, thank you; I did indeed notice. do most people really care about this stuff?

I am sorry, but your sister's ''table manner'' rules are totally arbitrary and completely rude. I am a left handed adult and eat with my left hand. I don't know what century she is referencing for making a left handed child do anything with their right hand, but that is just waaay 1800s. Next will she suggest tying his left hand behind his back??? I thought discrimination against lefties died a long time ago... southpaw and proud

Hi. I think your sister is WAAAAY off base. I am a right-handed American person who eats with fork in left hand because it seems awkward to me to be switching hands all the time. If anything, people seem to find it more graceful and efficient, not ''wrong.'' I cannot imagine a situation where this would be frowned upon, unless you were running for office as a Republican and it would give your primary opponent an opportunity to call you a Euroweenie. Sarah

I am a leftie and grew up in Europe where we do use both utensils at a meal. I have always held the knife in my left hand and have only ever had someone comment once ( a fellow leftie who thought I should be embarrassed to eat that way at a posh meal). Given how most American's only use a fork I don't think anyone would even notice. My work also had tonnes of left-handers (about 25% of our company) and I have no idea how any of them eat despite many meals with them- so no I don't think its important! left and proud

Your son's learning table manners has nothing to do w/ his dominant handedness. At 4 years old he should be taught age appropriate table manners and should be allowed to use whichever hand he chooses to use. Can YOU cut food and use a fork and spoon w/ your non dominant hand? If I did that people would likely assume I never learned table manners. I strongly doubt that anyone will EVER consider a left handed child/adult to have poor table manners just by the fact that they are using other then their right hand. REALLY??????? Why would you be concerned about this? People will, however, be concerned to sit at a table with a child who has poor table throwing food, shouting, grabbing, etc. Hope this helps. Sorry about your sister. SHE'S the one who would not be invited back to MY table. mom of a good mannered leftie.

Maybe I run with a simpler crowd, but I'm a lefty and in 40 years of feeding myself it's never once occurred or been pointed out to me that I ought to use the fork with my right hand for better etiquette. I use the fork in my left hand, knife in my right, and don't switch off - it just makes sense to use your dominant hand for the fork, doesn't it? I'm pretty sure it's even considered officially acceptable (whatever that means) for lefties to eat this way, but if your sister needs reassurance, tell her you're training him to eat European style. And regardless of what you decide to do later, at 4 he should definitely be concentrating on just eating neatly and politely (which is the real point of etiquette, anyway), not worrying about which hand he's using (hey, at least he's using a fork - you're ahead of some people). The best lefty dining tip I can impart is that he should always try to sit with his left arm on the outside corner whenever possible, to avoid bumping elbows with a right-handed diner next door. Maybe That's Why They Call It Gauche

When we lived in England, I was taught to hold my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right hand. People there mocked Americans for holding a fork in their right hand, transferring it to the left hand to cut meat, then transferring it back. I think at 3, if your son eats half his food with something other than his fingers, he is doing great. I certainly wouldn't try to get him to eat with his non-dominant hand. When he is older, if this is something that is important to him, it will be very easy for him to pick up. Also, I couldn't tell if you wanted comments about your sister so I'm not making any, but my tongue is bleeding from biting it so hard. Anon

i had never, ever heard anyone say that lefties should eat with the same hand as righties until your inquiry. and when i was an exchange student in france, where people hold forks in left hands, i was surprised my host family held forks in their right hands. until i figured out it was because they were all lefties! so the manners i always learned were about non-dominant hands, NOT right hands. my internet research reveals that your sister is not crazy because some people agree with her. but miss manners thinks you are teaching correct manners already. anon

I am strongly left-handed and value highly table manners. I hold my fork in my left hand and always have. I typically use a knife in my right. If something is difficult to cut, I will use my left. Nobody has ever criticized me or commented on it. Probably more important to teach your child to hold a fork properly in his left hand (e.g., don't grab it full-fist like spear) than to hold the utensil in the right hand. Honestly, I would be thrilled your child is using a fork period! We still have to remind our teenaged daughter not to eat with her hands! Don't worry about it

Dear mom, I begin with a quick quote: ''anyway, my sister, who is currently staying with us, pointed out that we should be teaching him to eat 'properly' for his own benefit. i kind of feel that a left handed person should be able to reverse utensils for their own comfort and ease of use.'' Comfort and ease of use are the key words here. You have said it all in your own words. You know what is right here. Your sister is completely out of line. No one cares about this sort of thing, as long as the kid is demonstrating age-appropriate table manners. And no child should be forced to use a hand that doesn't come naturally - that would have far worse consequences, psychologically, than the imporantance of anyone being pleased by his use of his right hand down the road. I am aghast that your sister would have such an antiquated take on this issue. Please continue to advocate for your kid and while you're at it, maybe figure out a way to have better boundaries for yourself with your sister, as she sounds extremely invasive and controlling and inappropriate. Let's hear it for lefties

I am left handed and so are my two children (ages 15 and 12). We all use our forks in our left hands and, if we need to cut something at the table, use a knife in our right hands. I truly don't remember at what age my kids learned to use a knife consistently, but I doubt it was as young as 4. I also don't think of it as ''bad manners'' if they were to choose to use a knife in their left hands. As you have noted, there are more important ''manners'' related things than which hand holds which utensil. Southpaw Mom

Sheesh. I'm a leftie who group up in a pretty strict family from a table-manners point of view, and never once has my utensil handedness been commented on. After reading your post I had to think hard to remember what the supposed rules actually are (were). Manners are norms that are always in flux, and I'm pretty sure that this one is not really followed any more. We are an increasingly global society, where many people were raised in / have lived in multiple places and may follow the ''European rules,'' for example, or perhaps grew up using chopsticks and have taken on forks and knives later in life. I would let him be. As long as he figures out how to use utensils (instead of his hands) and chew with his mouth closed, he'll be fine. leftie

I am surrounded by lefties, and I did not know that they are supposed to use right-handed table manners. Are you sure that's a real thing? But I'm with you, he should put the knife and fork in whatever hand feels right, just like he should put a pencil in whatever hand feels right. My great-grandmother told us stories of being forced in school to use her right hand and we all agreed how BARBARIC that was! That would never happen today! But I guess your sister disagrees. Righty who is daughter, sister, wife and mother of lefties

How to stop 10yo from chewing with her mouth open

July 2012

Please give me your advice on how to get my 10 year old child to chew with her mouth closed. This is not a new problem--for years I've reminded/asked her to chew with her mouth closed but for whatever reason she simply does not (or can not?) change. I've tried nagging, yelling, and even snapping a hair tie (soft!) on her wrist when she's open-mouth chewing, but none of these have helped, and I've finally lost all patience for it.

Although this does not seem to me like a thing that is amenable to a positive reward system--at this age I really don't feel like I should give her a ''reward'' for going through a meal with me not reminding her to chew with her mouth closed--I suppose if that's what people think I should try I'll go there. Any other ideas? Could there possibly be a dental/medical reason why she isn't able to remember to chew with her mouth closed (she has had some preliminary orthodonture, but her teeth/bite are not that bad). -- Any and all advice welcome!

Could your daughter have seasonal allergies or food sensitivities that contribute to nasal congestion, making it hard for her to breathe while eating if her mouth is closed? My husband occasionally chides me about chewing with my mouth open -- and it's always when the dreaded acacia is blooming! Snuffly

I am not an expert but have been getting therapy for oralfacial health, including learning to swallow properly. From my understanding thus far of the mechanics, it would be my opinion your daughter cannot chew with her mouth closed.  Nori

Can your child breathe easily through her nose? As an adult I struggled to eat politely in front of others because I couldn't breathe as soon as I closed my mouth due to extremely swollen sinus membranes, caused by allergies. As soon as I started taking a nasal steroid (Flonase) I was able to breathe through my nose again. Eating became so much more pleasant. breathing freely now

I think it's all a process and good/bad manners come and go. The key is to repeat the rules and model them as best you can. I do recall my mother being appalled at my manners as a child too. Recently, I had reached my limit with my own kids' manners (putting knees up on the chair, chewing with mouth open, elbows on the table, etc. I told them that we need to eat properly at home so that we don't go out and eat with bad manners at school or a restaurant so we need to practice. It's not perfect, but there is more awareness. We try to make our dinner a more ''formal'' affair by setting the table, practicing manners. Just yesterday we had a tea party where I explained to them what you do when you go to tea (napkins on your lap, no knees up, no elbows, chew with mouth closed, say please and thank you, ask people to pass stuff). Because we were having fun, I was impressed at how well they listened to the rules and followed them. I have to accept that it won't be perfect, but if I keep consistent, hopefully by the time they are older, they'll do everything correctly or at least moderately correctly. Let's face it, for years, ''proper'' children were sent to ''cotillion'' in the south to learn good manners. Obviously teaching children these things just takes time and practice. anon

I will read the responses with interest! My 10-year old also still chews with her mouth open, and it drives me crazy. In fact, last night I was thinking that we needed some new suggestions. I too don't like the ''positive reward'' for something they should just be doing-too hard to keep track of, and how do you stop it without them reverting to the behavior without a reward. With mine, it seems to be unconscious-I know she's not TRYING to do it- but she's not really trying not to, either. We remind her numerous times during meals, often, and so she stops temporarily, we remind her, ''oh sorry'' is the response, etc. It's definitely not defiance but she is also not motivated to change it-it doesn't matter to her. I hope there are some great ideas because I think this is really gross and at some point her peers will too. -Julie

Your kid may have a deviated septum or some other condition that makes breathing through the nose difficult. Is there a history of breaking the nose? Does she mouth breathe? Just a thought. mike

We've been telling our son not to chew with his mouth open for years and he still does it. You could try turning your back on her at the table so you don't have to see it. Actually I don't think there is much you can do except continue to remind her. I think kids stop chewing with their mouth open when they're eating in front of someone they care about or are trying to impress, or when/if someone calls them on it whose opinion they care about. That person is not their parent. Til then, turn your back and keep reminding. Jane

Does your child have any issues with nasal congestion or allergies? Even the slightest congestion can make it hard for me to chew with my mouth closed. I feel like I can't breathe. Just a thought...

6 year old eating with her mouth open

June 2010

Our 6 year old is still eating with her mouth open, and now I'm afraid that she will do this for the rest of her life! Is it too late? I hate nagging her to keep her mouth closed, have offered incentives for doing so, etc. but nothing has worked so far. Even other kids at her school have mentioned it. Any ideas? help greatly appreciated!

I don't think your 6 year old will always do this. Really. It will take a long time, but eventually, with gentle reminders, your child, like mine now that they are 9 and 11, remind me not to smack as I eat! I think it may take a few years. Good luck. anon

I hope you get some good tips or at least advice it is not too late. My 9.5 year old is an INCREDIBLE smacker - it is loud and yucky and everyone is constantly telling her to close her mouth (nicely in a reminder way) but every now and then it turns judgmental (OMG it sounds so loud could you stop smacking!!!)

My 6 year old not as bad!

I keep thinking it might have something to do with nasal passages, breath control. She isn't a very coordinated person at all so maybe it's just too much???? mom at a noisy table

Can your child breathe through her nose? I had chronically blocked sinuses due to swelling for many years, and it was very hard for me to eat with my mouth closed, especially things like soup/cereal that were wet. I really noticed it when eating with others, because I would become so out of breath from keeping my mouth closed. I started taking Fluonase and I just love being able to breathe through my nose again. Eating is so much easier! mouth breather no more

I was 33 when I learned to eat with my mouth closed. I wouldn't worry too much about it. At some point you can talk to her calmly about it, and why it's important. Ask if she wants your help with it. I would wait a few months before bringing it up with her. Don't make it a power struggle, she will never be able to eat with her mouth closed if you do. Also make sure there's nothing wrong with her nose, i.e. is she a mouth breather? eating with my mouth closed now

My 7-year old has a similar issue. I point it out for her whenever she has her mouth open while chewing. She knows it's not a good table manner and corrects it right away when told. We kind of made it a fun thing where I'm the ''mouth police'' who points out her open mouth while she is the ''elbow police'' who points out anyone who has an elbow on the table while eating. Perhaps because she also has a policing power, she does not mind it at all when her open mouth is pointed out. We've always consistently pointed out bad manners and it seems we have less occurrence. anon

I wonder if it is hard for your child to breathe with her mouth closed and/or she has a hard time breathing through her nose while she is chewing. My BIL has a deviated septum in his nose and chews with his mouth open, unfortunately. But he can't breath if he closes his mouth to chew. Maybe her tonsils are enlarged and that is making it hard to breath through her nose. You could check these things with your doctor. good luck!

10 and 7 year olds' messy table manners

April 2009

My two kids are almost 10 and 7 years old. On the whole, their table manners aren't TOO bad, but we seem to have hit a plateau, especially with the younger one who can't stay on her chair, prefers fingers, when does use a utensil will bring mouth to food rather than food to mouth, wipes mouth on sleeve, talks with mouth full. The older one also prefers fingers, and makes an incredible mess when attempting to use utensils. We've read loads of books on manners, we remind them before and during a meal, demonstrate the right way, practice the right way, etc. They both are also slow eaters, so it's not as if they're rushing to get the meal done. Any other tips and tricks on instilling good manners? Thanks! Ellen

Hope this idea helps - since your kids are ''older'' they may need a different kind of motivation than to do it because mom or dad asks them. Positive peer pressure can be a helpful tool. Perhaps you can tell them that they can each invite a friend to dinner on a Friday or Saturday evening (maybe once a month), pick out a date on the calendar and circle it, make a big fun visual display of it...and reinforce that when you are eating around company, good table manners are expected. Each night, leading up to the dinner, ask them to share a good table manner and the whole family will practice it. So this ''practicing'' will reinforce your expectations of table manners and at the same time provide an opportunity for the kids to contol and modify their own behaviors and hopefully, with repetativenss, will break any undesireable habits they may have begun to form. When the friend(s) come to dinner (hopefully they have good table manners too, kids usually do at other people's homes..right?), you're kids can be proud to show their good table manners (and you can praise them away from the peer or in front of the peer - whatever you feel appropriate - to reinforce the behavior). When this gets old, maybe along with inviting a friend over, your kids can help create the dinner menu or even help ''cook.'' Mealtimes are great learning opportunities. believer of mealtime etiquette too

This is a grandmother's viewpoint so may not be politically correct among your friends. But I was rewarded for good behavior by my parents, my teachers, and then my employers. And I lost rewards for unwanted behaviors right up to the day I retired. The last two years my 6 year old grandson wins ''points'' for doing things he's supposed to do. It started with a shower before his swim lesson and has grown from there. He also knows that when I say he just lost 3 points I mean it. And he changes his behavior instantly. He was the one that figured out for himself that he could save up points from week to week. And that bought a lot of Thomas trains! Now he sometimes remembers to ask how many points he has. And other times he totally forgets about them. You could try a system like this. Other parents also reinforce the lost points concept by taking away a favorite toy. But that depends on knowing what's the favorite right this minute and for tomorrow too. jw in Berkeley

How to get a 6 year old to close his mouth while eating

March 2004

Will someone please, pleeeease, explain how to get a six-year-old to close his mouth while chewing. These days dinner conversation veers from what's happening at school, what's happening in the world, some pointed anti-Bush talk and other critical bits of early brainwashing to ''honey, please close your mouth,'' interspersed with the occassional ''elbows off the table.'' In other words, I have become my mother. First, is there a trick to getting a child to close his/her mouth while chewing? Second, is there a way to instill proper table manners without being a nag? Nancy

Yup. My ten-year-old has graduated from chewing with mouth open to shoveling in so much food I'm seriously worried he'll choke. (This despite constant everynight reminders about safe, polite eating habits.) I've started giving him 1 warning and then making him leave the table. I make him stay away for at least 5 minutes and then let him return when he's ready to eat like a person and not a barnyard creature.

Has anybody tried the Ritz-Carlton children's mealtime etiquette classes? Supposedly it makes a bigger impression to sit at a table with a group of peers but I'm worried my roughhousing kid will just see the class as an opportunity to be class clown.

Mom of kid who'd prefer a trough

Try making a game out of it - make funny faces while chewing ! with your mouth closed or something. If you nag in a funny way, it won't feel like nagging. anon

Take this with a grain of salt. I was your son about 30 years ago. When I turned about seven, my father told me that we do not eat with our mouths open. I quickly closed my mouth but eventually forgot and fell into the same pattern. From that point on, when ever I would eat with my mouth open, my father would mimic the actions for the entire meal. It made for terrible dinner conversation and an incredibly tense atmosphere. But, I learned. It took a few months. One momentary laspse and my father would eat with his mouth open for the entire meal to make his point. Try it and you'll probably traumatize your kid for a little while. But, alas, it works. That said, having endured it, I will not be using the same technique on my son. David

Okay. Okay. this probably isn't it, but...One of my friends used to eat with his mouth open cuz he couldn't breath well through his nose. Once he got his nose stuff taken care of, he was much easier to eat lunch with. Does your son have allergies or a chronically plugged up nose?

And how can I get my daughter to stop slurping? Mom with ear plugs